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ANY story that has Jackson Gregory's name attached to it is always worthy of careful consideration. All that is necessary to prove this is a reading of the first chapter of any story of his we ever published. No one who has gone that far has ever been known to stop there; and if there is any one who doubts this statment, the doubter has an excellent chance, here and now, to prove the truth of it. Everybody else—just plunge in! —The Editor.
SHELDON had plunged on into this new country rather recklessly, being in reckless mood. Now, five days northward of Belle Fortune, he knew that he had somewhere taken the wrong trail.
The knowledge came upon him gradually. There was the suspicion before ten o'clock that morning, when the stream he followed seemed to him to be running a little too much to the northwest. But he had pushed on, watchful of every step, seeking a blazed tree or the monument of a stone set upon a rock.
When he made camp at noon he was still undecided, inclined to believe that the wise thing would be to turn back. But he did not turn back. He was his own man now; all time was before him; the gigantic wilderness about him was grateful. At night, when he had yanked his small pack down from his horse's saddle, suspicion had grown into certainty. He smoked his good-night pipe in deep content.
If you could run a line straight from Belle Fortune to Ruminoff Shanty—and you'd want both tunnel and aeroplane to do the job nicely! —your line would measure exactly two hundred and forty miles. It would cut almost in halves the Sasnokee-keewan, the country into which few men come, let entirely alone by the Indians who with simple emphasis term it "Bad Country."
Men have found gold on Gold River, where the Russian camp of Ruminoff Shanty made history half a century ago; they have taken out the pay-dirt at Belle Fortune. Between the two points they have made many trails during fifty years, trails which invariably turn to east or west of the Sasnokee-keewan. For here is a land of fierce, iron-boweled mountains, of tangled brush which grows thick and defies the traveler, of long reaches, of lava-rock and granite, of mad, white, raging winters.
"Leave it alone," men say down in Belle Fortune and up in Ruminoff. "It's No-Luck Land. Many a poor devil's gone in that never came out. And never a man brought a show of color out of it."
Since Belle Fortune had dropped one day behind him, it had all been new country to Sheldon. Although summer was on its way, there had been few men before him since the winter had torn out the trails. Here and there, upon the north slopes and in the shaded canons, patches and mounds of snow were thawing slowly.
More than once had he come to a forking of the ways, but he had pushed on without hesitating, content to be driving ever deeper into the wilderness. He planned vaguely on reaching French Meadows by way of the upper waters of the Little Smoky, climbing the ridge whence rumor had it you could see fifteen small lakes at once. But what mattered it, French Meadows or the very heart of the Sasnokee-keewan?
A man who took life as it came, was John Sheldon; who lived joyously, heedlessly, often enough recklessly. When other men grumbled he had been known to laugh. While these last lean, hard years had toughened both physical and mental fiber, they had not hardened his heart. And yet, a short five days ago, he had had murder in his heart.
He had just made his "pile"; he, with Charlie Ward, who, Sheldon had thought, was straight. And straight the poor devil would have been had it not been that he was weak and there was a woman. He wanted her; she wanted his money. It's an old story.
Sheldon for once was roused from his careless, good-natured acceptance of what the day might bring. He had befriended Ward, and Ward had robbed him. In the first flare of wrath he took up the man trail. He followed the two for ten days, coming up with them then at Belle Fortune.
There had been ten days of riot, wine and cards and roulette- wheel, for Charlie Ward and the woman. Sheldon, getting word here and there, had had little hope of recovering his money. But he did not expect what he did find. Charlie was dying—had shot himself in a fit of remorseful despondency. The woman was staring at him, grief-stricken, stunned, utterly human after all.
She had loved him, it seemed; that was the strange part of it. The few gold pieces which were left she hurled at Sheldon as he stood in the door, cursing him. He turned, heard Charlie's gasps through the chink of the coins, went out, tossed his revolver into the road, bought a pack outfit, shouldered a rifle, and left Belle Fortune "for a hunting trip," as he explained it to himself. He had never got a bear in his life and—
And there is nothing in all the world like the deepest solitude of the woods to take out of a man's heart the bitterness of revenge. Sheldon was a little ashamed of himself. He wanted to forget gold and the seeking thereof. And therefore, perhaps, his fate took it upon herself to hide a certain forking of the trails under a patch of snow so that he turned away from French Meadows and into the Sasnokee-keewan.
Now he was lost. Lost merely in so far as he did not know where he was; not that he need worry about being able to retrace his steps. He had provisions, ammunition, fishing tackle, bedding; was in a corner of the world where men did not frequently come, and could stay here the whole summer if he saw fit. He had been hunting gold all the years of his life, it seemed to him. What had it brought him? What good had it done him? Never was man in better mood to be lost than was John Sheldon as he knocked out his pipe, rolled into his blankets, and went to sleep.
Now, the sixth day out he watched his way warily. If he were not already in the Sasnokee-keewan, he should to-day, or by to- morrow noon at the latest, come to the first of the Nine Lakes. He had studied the stars last night; he had watched the sun to- day. It was guesswork at best, since he had had no thought to prick his way by map.
Night came again, and he looked from a ridge down upon other ridges, some bare and granite-topped, some timbered, with here and there a tall peak looking out across the broken miles, with no hint of Lake Nopong. He made his way down a long slope in the thickening dusk, seeking a grassy spot to tether his packhorse. That night the animal crunched sunflower leaves and the tenderer shoots of the mountain bushes. With the dawn Sheldon again pushed on, seeking better pasture.
Late that afternoon he came into a delightfully green meadow, where a raging creek grew suddenly gentle and wandered through crisp herbage and little white flowers. There was a confusion of deer-tracks where a narrow trail slipped through the alders of the creek banks. Upon the rim of the meadow was a great log freshly torn into bits, as though by the great paws of a bear.
Under a tall, isolated cedar about whose base there was dry ground, Sheldon removed the canvas-rolled pack and the pack- saddle, turning his horse into an alder-surrounded arm of the meadow where the grass was thickest and tallest. While the sun was still high he cut the branches which he would throw his blankets upon, fried his bacon and potatoes, boiled his coffee, and ate heartily.
Then he sat upon the log at which the bear had torn, saw the tracks and nodded over them, noting that they were only a few days old—smoked his pipe, and out of the fullness of content watched his hungry horse ripping away at the lush grass.
"Take your time. Buck, old boy," he said gently. "We'll stay right here until you get a bellyful. We don't have to move on until snow flies, if we don't want to. I think that this is one of the spots of the world we've been looking for a long time. I'd lay a man a bet, two to one and he names the stakes, that there's not another human being in three days' walk."
And a very little after sunset, with the same thought soothing him, he went to sleep.
THE seventh day out Sheldon began in practical manner by shaving. His beard was beginning to turn in and itch. And, even upon trips like this, he had yet to understand why a fellow shouldn't include in his pack the razor, brush, and soap, which, altogether, occupied no more space than a pocket tin of tobacco.
He was up and about in the full glory of the morning, before the last star had gone. A grub from a fallen log went onto a hook, into the creek, and down a trout's eager throat, and the trout itself was brown in the pan almost as the coffee began to bubble over. Thirty minutes after he had waked, he was leading the full-stomached Buck northward along the stream's grassy banks.
The world seemed a good place to live in this morning, clean and sweet, blown through with the scents of green growing things. The ravine widened before him; the timber was big Doled with grassy, open spaces; though there was no sign of a trail other than the tracks left by wild things coming to feed and water, he swung on briskly.
"If I really am in the Sasnokee-keewan," he told himself early in the day, "Then men have maligned it, or else I have stumbled into a corner of it they have missed somehow. It strikes me as the nearest thing imaginable to the earthly paradise."
He had turned out to the right, following the open, coming close under a line of cliffs which stood up, sheer and formidable, along the edge of the meadow. And then, suddenly, unexpectedly, he came upon the first sign he had had for three days that a man had ever been before him in these endless woods. Upon the rocky ground at the foot of the cliffs was a man's skeleton.
Sheldon stopped and stared. The thing shocked him. It seemed inconceivable that a man could have died here, miserably as this poor fellow had done, alone, crying out aloud to the solitudes which answered him softly with gently stirring branches and murmuring water. Sheldon's mood, one of serene, ineffable peace, had had so strong a grasp upon him that this sign of tragedy and death was hard to grasp.
He stood long, staring down at the heap of bones. They were tumbled this way and that. He shuddered. And yet he stood there, fascinated, wondering, letting his suddenly awakened, overstimulated imagination have its way.
There came the query: "What killed him?"
Sheldon looked up at the cliffs. The man might have fallen. But the skull was intact; there had been no fracture there. Nor—Sheldon forgot his previous revulsion of feeling in his strong curiosity —nor was there a broken bone of arm or leg to indicate a fall. The bones were large; it had been a big man, six feet or over, and heavy. No; in spite of the position of the disordered skeleton, death had not come that way.
For half an hour Sheldon lingered here, restrained a little by the thoughts rising naturally to the occasion, seeking to read the riddle set before him. There were no rattlesnakes here, no poisonous insects at these altitudes. The man had not fallen. To come here at all he must have been one who knew the mountains; then he had not starved, for the streams were filled with trout, and he would know the way to trap small game enough to keep life in him. And what man ever came so deep into the wild without a rifle?
It seemed to Sheldon that there was only one answer. The man must have got caught here in an early snowstorm; he must have lost his head; instead of going calmly about preparing shelter and laying up provisions for the winter, he must have raced on madly, getting more hopelessly lost at every bewildered step—and then the end had come, hideously.
At last Sheldon moved on, pondering the thoughts which centered about the white pile of bones which once, perhaps four or five or six years ago, had been a man. How the poor devil must have cursed the nights that blotted the world out, the winds which shrieked of snow, the mountains which rose like walls about a convict.
"What became of his gun?" cried Sheldon suddenly, speaking aloud. "The buckle from his belt, the metal things in his pockets, knife, coins, cartridges? The things which prowling animals can't eat! They don't carry such things off!"
He came back, walking swiftly. There was little grass so close to the cliffs; nothing but bare, rocky ground and a few bits of dry wood, two or three old cones dropped from a pine; nothing to hide the articles which Sheldon sought. But, although he made assurance doubly sure by searching carefully for more than an hour, back and forth along the cliffs, out among the trees, he found nothing. Not so much as the sole of a boot.
"And that," muttered Sheldon, taking up Buck's lead rope, "if a man asked me, is infernally strange."
As he went on he strove frowningly for an explanation and found none. The man had not been alone? He had had a companion? This companion had taken his rifle, his knife and watch, or whatever might have been in his pockets, and had gone on. Possibly. But, then, why had he not taken the time to bury the body? And how was it that there was not a single shred of clothing?
"Coyotes may be so everlastingly hungry up here that they eat a man's boots, soles, nails and all!" grunted Sheldon. "Only—I am not the kind of a tenderfoot to believe that particular brand of fairy tale. There's not even a button!"
It is the way of the human intellect to contend with locks upon doors which shut on secrets. The mind, given half of the story, demands the remainder. John Sheldon, as he trudged on, grew half angry with himself because he could not answer the questions which insisted upon having answers. But before noon he had almost forgotten the scattered bones under the cliffs, the matter thrust to one rim of his thoughts which must now be given over almost entirely to finding trail.
For no longer was there meadow-land under foot. The strip of fairly level, grassy land was gone abruptly; beyond lay boulder- strewn slopes, fringed with dense brush, all but impassable to the packhorse.
Often the man must leave the animal while he went ahead seeking a way; often must the two of them turn back for some unexpected fall of cliff, all unseen until they were close to the edge, compelling them to retrace their steps perhaps a hundred yards, or five hundred, and many a time did Sheldon begin to think that the way was shut to the plucky brute that labored on under his pack.
But always he found a way on, a way down. And always, being a man used to the woods, did he keep in mind that the time might come when he'd have to turn back for good. If he could in time win on through, come out at the north end of the Sasnokee-keewan, then he would have had a trip which left nothing to be desired.
If, on the other hand, there came cliffs across the trail which Buck could not make his way down, around which they could not go—why, then, it was as well to have the way open this way. For Sheldon had no thought to desert the horse, without which just now he'd make far better time.
It was the hardest day he had had. That means that half a dozen times between dawn and dark the man hesitated, on the verge of turning back. Alone, he could have gone on, and with twice the speed; leading Buck, he wondered many a time if he could push on another mile without rewarding his horse with a broken leg. And yet, being a man who disliked turning back, and having to do with a horse that put all of his faith in his master unquestioningly, he put another ten miles between him and Belle Fortune that long, hard day.
In the afternoon he was forced to leave the creek which was rapidly growing into a river which shot shouting down through a rocky gorge, narrow and steep-sided. As the stream began turning off to the west Sheldon climbed out of its canyon made a wide detour to avoid a string of bare peaks lifting against the northern sky-line, and made a slow and difficult way over the ridge. In a sort of saddle he left his panting horse, while he clambered to a spire of rock lifted a score of feet above the pass.
He could look back from here and see the stream he had left. Here and there he caught a glimpse of the water, slipping away between the trees or flashing over a boulder as it sped down toward the gorge. He was glad that he had turned aside as soon as he had done; there would have been no getting out of that chasm unless a man came back here, and he had lost enough time as it was.
He turned his eyes toward the north. A true wilderness, if God ever made one to defy the taming hand of man—a wilderness of mountains, an endless stretch of bare ridges and snow-capped peaks, a maze of steep-sided gorges like the one he had just quitted, a stern, all but trackless labyrinth in which a man, if he were not a fool, must keep his wits about him.
"Gods knows," meditated Sheldon, his spirit touched with that awe which comes to a man who stands alone as he stood, looking down upon the world where the Deity has builded in fierce, untrammeled majesty, "a man is a little thing in a place like this. I suppose, if I were wise, I would turn tail and get out while I can."
And again he pushed on, northward. There was little feed here for Buck; both horse and man wanted water. Though they had left the creek but two hours ago, the dry air and summer sun had stirred in them the thirst which sleeps so little out on the trail.
Sheldon knew that they had but to make their way down into another ravine to find water. In these mountains, especially at this early season, there was no need for one to suffer from thirst. From his vantage-point, his eyes sweeping back and forth among the peaks and ridges, he picked out the way he should go for the rest of the day, the general direction for to-morrow. And then, Buck's lead-rope again in his hand, he turned down, gradually seeking the headwaters of the next stream, hoping for one of the tiny meadows like the one in which he had camped last night.
It was four o'clock when he started downward. It was nearly dark when he came to water. It was such country as he had never seen before. He fully expected to start back to-morrow. He had seen no game all day; he didn't believe that either deer or bear came here. What the deuce would they come for? They had more brains than a man. Besides, two or three times Buck had fallen; the next thing would be a broken leg, and no excuse for it.
But, nevertheless, he must find pasturage for the night. The horse had had nothing but the tenderer twigs of young bushes all day, with now and then a handful of sunflower leaves. The dark had fallen; the moon was up before Sheldon found what he sought. And he admitted that he was in luck to find it at all.
The rocky slope, broken into little falls of cliff, had ended abruptly. There was an open space, timbered only by a few water- loving trees, the red willow and alder, and tall grass. Sheldon yanked off pack and pack saddle, tethered his horse, and went to drink.
The beauty of the brook—it was scarcely more here near the source—with the moonlight upon it, impressed him, tired as he was. There was a sandy bed, gravel strewn, unusual here, where the thing to be expected was the water-worn rocks. The current ran placidly, widening out to a willow-fringed pool. The grass stood six inches tall everywhere, straight, untrampled.
Sheldon threw himself down to drink. What he had thought the dead white limb of a tree, lying close to the water's edge, was a bone. He found another. Then the skull, half buried in mud and grass. It was the skeleton of a man. The second in one day's travel! And, though Sheldon looked that night and again the next morning, there was nothing to hint at the cause of this man's death. Nor was there a gun, an ax, a pocket knife or watch or strip of boot leather—nothing but the bones which the seasons had whitened, here and there discolored by the soil into which they had sunk.
When a man is as hungry and tired as Sheldon was that night, he does not squander time in fruitless fancies. He made a rude meal swiftly, rolled into his blankets, and went to sleep. But he had muttered as he rolled over to keep the moonlight out of his eyes:
"We're not going back yet, Buck, old horse. If other men got this far, we can go a little farther."
And, though he was too tired to lie awake and think, he could not shut out of his dreams, the fancies bred of the two discoveries. The stories which men told of the Sasnokee-keewan, the superstition-twisted tales of the Indians, came and went through his brain, distorted into a hundred guises. This was No- Luck Land —the land into which few men came; the land from which those few did not return. What got them? What killed them?
Out of a vision of some great, hideous, ghoulish being which robbed the dead, even to stripping the bodies of their clothing, Sheldon woke with a start. The moon shone full in his eyes. Something had wakened him. He heard it moving there, softly. He sat up, grasping his rifle. It was very still again suddenly. He could not locate the sound. Maybe it had been Buck, browsing. No; Buck was tethered beyond the alders, out of sight. No sound came from there; the horse no doubt was dozing.
He even got up, vaguely uneasy. He had awakened with the decidedly uncomfortable feeling that something was above him, staring down into his face. That, on top of the sort of dream which had been with him all night, bred in him a stubborn curiosity to know what the something was.
He went quietly and cautiously back and forth; to where Buck stood, hidden beyond the trees, dozing, as he had anticipated; across the brook. He lifted his shoulders distastefully as he stepped by the little pile of bones.
There was nothing. It might have been a cat, even a night bird breaking a twig in the nearest pine. Sheldon went back to his bed. But he was wide awake now. He lighted his pipe and for an hour sat up, smoking, his blanket about his shoulders.
He experienced a strange emotion— something defying analysis — that he could catalogue only uncertainly as loneliness. It was not fear—not strong enough for that. He wanted company; it was with a frown that he checked himself from going to bring his horse close in to his camp. That would have been childish.
He moved a little, sitting so that his back was against the tree.
IT had been in the small hours of the night that Sheldon woke. The fire he had replenished before turning in was a mere bed of coals. He threw a log across it, and at last dozed. Again he was up and about with the first streaks of dawn. The sky was pearl-pink when he threw the diamond hitch and was ready to take up the trail again.
And now, calm-thoughted with the light of day, he hesitated. Should he go on? Or should he turn back?
As though for an answer, he went to the crossing where the scattered bones lay close to the water. And the answer to his question came to him, presenting him a fresh riddle. If he had stared wonderingly when he came upon the skull at the cliffs back yonder, now did he stare stupefied. There came a vague, misty fear that he was growing fanciful, that he was seeing things which did not exist. He got down on his knees, his face not two feet from the track in the sandy margin of the creek.
Something had passed there last night; the track was very fresh. Whatever it was that had wakened him had crossed here. And what was it? He sought to be certain; he must be conservative. The track was imperfect; the lapping of the water broke down the little ridges of sand the passing foot had pushed up; the imprint would be gone entirely in a few hours. And there was no other here, for the grass came close down to the water.
He looked quickly across the stream. There there was a little strip of wet soil. The water boiling unheeded about his boots, he strode across. Despite the man's quiet nerves, his heart was beating like mad. For he saw that there was a track here, fresh, made last night. And another. Now he did not need to go down on his knees. The imprints were clearly outlined, as definite as though drawn upon a sheet of paper.
And they were the tracks of a bare, human foot.
If it had been the big track of a big man, Sheldon's heart would not have hammered so. But it was the track that might have marked the passing here of a boy of ten or twelve—or of a girl!
"A child or a woman came last night and looked at me as I slept," muttered the man wonderingly. "Here, God knows how many miles from anywhere! Barefooted, prowling around in the middle of the night! Good God! The cursed thing is uncanny!"
As he had felt it before, but now more overwhelmingly, was his soul oppressed with the bigness of the solitude about him. He was a pygmy who had blundered into a giant's land. He was as a little boy in the inscrutable presence of majesty and mystery. For a little it seemed to him that in the still, white dawn he stood hemmed about by the supernatural..
Why should there be two white piles of unburied human bones here in a day's travel? Why should there be a fresh track in the wet soil made by a little naked foot in the night? Why should every bit of metallic substance disappear from the presence of those dead men? Why should his visitor of last night peer down at him and then slip away, with no word?
He frowned. Unconsciously he was connecting the bleached skeleton and the fresh track. The man had been dead perhaps half a dozen years; the track had not been there so many hours. He was growing fanciful with a vengeance.
It was with an effort of will that he cleared his mind of the wild tales which he had heard told of the Sasnokee-keewan. For a little he sought to believe that he had been so hopelessly confused in his sense of direction that he had made a great curve and had come back to some one of the outposts of civilization; that even now he was separated only by a ridge, or by a bend in the canyon, from a lumber-camp or mining settlement. But he knew otherwise. One doesn't find bleaching human bones lying disinterred upon the edge of a village.
He sought to follow the tracks across the bed of the canyon and could not. They here were lost in the grass, which was not tall enough to bow to the light passing. But a hundred yards farther down the creek he came upon them again, fresh tracks of little bare feet, clearly outlined in a muddy crossing. The imprint of the heel was faint; the toes had sunk deep.
"Running," grunted Sheldon. "And going like the very devil, too, I'll bet."
He went back for Buck.
"We're going on, old horse," he informed his animal. "The Lord knows what we're getting into. But if a kid of a boy can make it, I guess we can."
For he preferred to think of it as a boy. That a barefoot woman should be running about here in the heart of the mountains, peering down at a man sleeping, scampering away as he woke—"prowling around," as he put it—well, it was simpler to think of a half-grown boy doing it.
"Or a man stunted in his growth," he thought for the first time.
And the thought remained with him. One could conceive of a man who had never got his full growth physically, who was stunted mentally as well, a half-crazed, half-wild being, who fled here, who subsisted in a state little short of savagery, who crept through the moonlit forests subtly stirred by the weird moon- madness, who hunted like the other wild things.
"Who slipped up behind a man and drove a knife into his back! Who even made way with the clothing, everything, leaving the bones to whiten through summer and winter as other animals of prey left the creatures they had killed!"
Big were the forests, limitless, seeming as vast as infinity itself, resting heavy and still upon a man's soul. The feeling of last night, the loneliness, the sort of unnamed dread came back upon John Sheldon. He shook it off with an impatient imprecation. But all day it hovered about him. Again he was glad of his horse's companionship.
Not a nervous man, still he was not without imagination. He began to be oppressed with the stillness of the wilderness. As he pushed on down-stream, watchful for other tracks, he came into a valley which widened until it was perhaps a mile across, carpeted with grass, timbered with the biggest trees he had seen since leaving Belle Fortune, their boles five and six and seven feet through, every one a monument of majesty, planted centuries before some long-forgotten ancestor of John Sheldon learned of a land named America.
There were wide, open spaces. One looking through the giant trunks seemed always looking down the long, dimly lit aisle of the chief temple of the gods of the world. Power, and venerable age—and silence! A silence so eternal that it seemed veritably tangible and indomitable.
A man wanted at once to call out, to shatter the heavy stillness which bore upon his soul, and felt his lips grown mute. The creek gurgled, here and there a cone fell or there was the twitter of a bird; these sounds passed through the silence, accentuated it, were a part of it, a foil to it, but in no way disturbed the ancient reign of silence.
Through this world, which might have come at dawn from the hand of its Maker, Sheldon pushed on swiftly, his brain alive with a hundred questions and fancies. Where there was loose, soft dirt, where there was a likely crossing, he looked for tracks. And as hour after hour passed he found nothing to indicate that he was not, as he had imagined until this morning, alone in this part of the Sasnokee-keewan.
And yet he thought that last night's visitor was ahead cf him. True, a half-demented, super-cunning wild man might have hidden behind any of those big tree-trunks, might even now be watching him with feverishly bright eyes. Sheldon must chance that; he could not seek behind every tree in this forest of countless thousands. But he could feel pretty well assured that the creature he sought had not fled to east or to west any considerable distance. For on either hand, seen here and there through the trees, the sides of the canyon rose to steep cliffs where a man would have to toil for hours to make his way half-way up.
Noon came. Again Sheldon was in a swiftly narrowing gorge. No longer was the world silent about him. The roar and thunder of water shouting and echoing through the rocky defile nearly deafened him. Suddenly his path seemed shut off in front. It was impossible to get a horse over the ridge here on either hand; impossible to ford the torrent where many a treacherous hole hid under boiling water. He lunched and rested here, wondering if he must turn back.
While Buck browsed, Sheldon sought the way out. He turned to his right, climbing the flank of the mountain. A man could go up readily enough at this spot, clambering from one rock to another. The boulders were not unlike easily imagined steps placed by the giant deity of the wild. But it took no second look to be sure that never was the horse foaled that could follow its master here.
Tempting the man there rose from the ridge a tall, bare, and barren peak from which he could hope to have an extended sweep of world about him. He thought that he could come to it within an hour. And if he were to retrace his steps a little, seeking an escape from the cul de sac into which the stream had led him, it was well to have a look at the country now from some such peak.
He had done this before, perhaps half a dozen times, always selecting carefully the peak which promised the widest expanse of view with the least brush to struggle through. But never had he had the unlimited panorama which rewarded him now. At last he was at the top, after not one but two hours' hard climb; and he felt that, in sober truth, he had found the top of the world, that he had surmounted it, that he was less in its realm than in that of the wide, blue sky.
Far below the thunder of the stream he had just left was lost, smothered in the walls of its own canyon, stifled among the forests. Here there mounted only the whisper from the imperceptibly stirring millions of branches, not unlike the vague murmur in a sea shell. The peak itself might have been the altar of the god of silence.
East, west, south, whence he had come, Sheldon saw ridge on ridge, peak after peak, No-Luck Land running away until, with other ridges and peaks, it melted into the sky-line.
Looking north, and almost at his feet, the mountainside fell away precipitously. He estimated that he was at an altitude not less than eleven thousand feet. There was snow here, plenty of it, thawing so slowly that not nearly all of it would be gone when the winter came again.
Below him, in the tumbled boulders, were pockets of snow, with bare spaces, and the hardy mountain flowers in the shallow soil. Down he looked and down, until it seemed as though the steep- sided mountains fell away many thousands of dizzy feet. And there below was the wide valley, all one edge of it meadow-land, all the other edge given over to a mighty forest, and at the jagged line lying between wood and field a little lake, calm and blue, with white rocks along the farther rim.
On all sides of the valley lay the sheer mountains, shutting it in so that a man might look down and see the beauties beneath him and yet hesitate to descend, thinking of the difficulties of getting both in and out.
Sheldon had not forgotten the imprint of the bare foot. Nor was he ready to give up the search he had begun, there being no little stubbornness in the man's nature.
But he stared long down into the valley before him, thinking of the solitude to be found there; the game to be hunted if a man sought game; thinking that some time he would make his way down yonder, joying in the thought that his foot would be the first for years, perhaps generations, even centuries, to travel there. Now, however, he would turn back to where Buck waited; seek the pass that must lead out, and learn, if it was fated that he should know, who had made the tracks at the crossing.
His eyes, sweeping now across the field of tumbled rocks which topped the ridge at the base of his peak, were arrested by a flat piece of granite resting on top of a boulder which rose conspicuously above its neighbors.
Here, where only a second ago he had told himself that perhaps no other human foot than his own had come? The old sign of a man- made trail, the sign to be read from afar, to last on into eternity. For the shrieking winds of winter and the racing snows do not budge the flat rock laid carefully upon flat-topped stone.
Was he tricking himself? Had nature, in some one of her mad moods, done this trick? He strode over to it swiftly, sliding down the side of the slope up which he had clambered, making his way by leaps and bounds from rock to rock.
The monument was man-made.
Nature doesn't go out of her way, as some man had done, to get a block of granite, carry it a hundred yards up-hill, and place it upon a rock of another kind and shade where it can be the more conspicuous.
One monument calls for another in a trackless field of stone. In a moment, farther along the ridge, he found the second monument. He hurried to it. Yonder, lower on the slope, was the third; a hundred yards farther on, the fourth!
He got the trend of the trail now, for it curved only a bit, and they ran straight, straight toward the eastern rim of the valley lying far below him. And the other way, the trail ran back toward the canyon from which he had climbed. A trail here, in the very innermost heart of the Sasnokee-keewan, where men said there were no trails!
Eagerly he turned back toward the canyon. Monument after monument he found, leading cunningly between giant boulders, under cliffs, down a little, upward a little, down again, slowly, gradually seeking the lower altitude. Again and again Sheldon lost the way, which had but rock set on rock to indicate it; but always, going back, he picked it up again.
There were a dozen monuments to show the way before he came down into the meadow a mile above the spot where he had left Buck. And here also, at the base of the slope fully two hundred yards from the willows of the creek, he found a fresh, green willow-rod. It had been dropped here not more than a few hours ago, for the white wood where the bark had been torn away was not dried out. A bit of the bark itself he could tie into a knot without breaking it. And the stick had been cut with a sharp knife, the smooth end showing how one stroke had cut evenly through the half-inch branch.
"My wild man came this way," was Sheldon's eager thought. "He knew the trail over the mountain, and has gone on ahead. And that knife of his—"
He shuddered in spite of himself, and again cursed himself for getting what he called "nerves." But he thought that it was a fair bet that same knife had been driven into the backs of at least two men.
He went back for his horse, walking swiftly. Three hours had slipped away since noon. But he told himself that he was not "burning daylight." He had found a way over the mountain, a way he believed his horse could go with him. And if luck was good, he'd camp to-night in the valley down into which he had looked from the peak.
And somewhere, far ahead of him, perhaps not a thousand feet away, watching him from behind some tree or rock, was his "wild man!" He was beginning to be certain that it was a man, a little fellow, dwarfed in body and mind and soul, and yet—
And yet the track might have been that of a boy of ten, or of a woman. Right then he swore that he was going to find out whose track that was before he turned his back on the Sasnokee- keewan.
"I'd never be able to get it out of my head if I lived to be a thousand years old if I didn't get a look at the thing," he assured himself. "Thank God it's early in the season."
When he stopped to rest, he already had the habit of keeping his back to a tree.
AGAIN Sheldon traveled on until after nightfall and moonrise. Even the long twilight of these latitudes had faded when finally, following the monuments of an old, old trail, he came down into the valley which he had overlooked from the peak.
Horse and man were alike tired and hungry. They found a small stream, and in the first grove where there was sufficient grass, Sheldon made his camp for the night. And the fact that he was tired was not the only reason, not even the chief reason perhaps, that he did not build his customary camp-fire.
He ate a couple of cold potatoes, a handful of dried venison, a raw onion, and was content. He even decided that he'd manage without a fire in the morning. The smoke of his fire last night had, no doubt, told of his coming; he meant now to see his wild man before the wild man saw him. So he put it to himself as he tethered Buck in the heart of the grove and made his own bed. And he slept, as a man must sleep so often out on the trail, "with one eye open."
Through the night he dozed, waking many times. He must have slept soundly just before morning. With the dawn he woke again and did not go to sleep. The uneasy sense was with him, as it had been before that something had wakened him. He sat up, listening.
Only silence and the twitterings of the birds awaking with him. And still a sound echoing in his ears which he could not believe had been only the unreal murmur in a dream. He drew on his boots and slipped out of his blankets. He was wide awake and with no wish to go to sleep again. Turning toward the creek, he stopped suddenly.
There was a sound, far off, faint, only dimly audible. A sound which was at once like the call of some wild thing, some forest creature in distress, and yet like the cry of no animal Sheldon had ever heard. He strained his ears to hear. It was gone, sinking into the silence. And yet he had heard and his blood was tingling.
He snatched up his rifle and ran downstream, dodging behind trees as he went, pausing now and then to peer through the early light, hurrying on again.
"This time, if it is you, Mr. Wild Man," he muttered, "I'll be the one who does the creeping up on you."
Two hundred yards he went, hearing nothing. Then again it came, a faint, sobbing cry which, as before, stirred his blood strangely. It was so human, and yet not human, he thought. Less than human, more than human—which? Inarticulate, wordless, a bubbling cry of fear, or of physical suffering? The call was gone, sinking as it had sunk before, and again he ran on, his pulses bounding.
With sudden abruptness, before he was aware of it, he had shot out of the timbered land and upon the edge of the little blue lake he had looked down upon yesterday afternoon. Not a hundred paces from him the breeze-stirred ripples of the lake were lapping upon the sandy shore.
Here was one of those white rocks he had marked at the lake's side. And here upon the rock, arms tossed out toward the sun, which even as he paused breathless shot a first glimmer above the tree-tops, was "his wild man."
Clad only in the shaggy skin of a brown bear, which was caught over one shoulder, under the other, stitched at the sides with thongs; arms bare, legs, feet bare, the body a burnished copper, the hair long and blown about the shoulders, was a— girl!
He gasped as he saw, still uncertain. A dead limb cracked under his feet, and quick as a deer starts when he hears a man's step she whirled about, fronting him. He saw her face clearly, and the arm lifted raising his rifle fell lax at his side. For surely she was young, and unless the light lied she was beautiful.
About her forehead, caught into her hair, were strange, red flowers unknown to him. Her arms were round and brown and unthinkably graceful in their swift movements. She was as alert as any wild thing he had ever seen, and had in every gesture that inimitable, swift grace which belongs by birthright to the denizens of the woodlands.
Only an instant did they confront each other thus, the man stricken with a wonder which was half incredulity; the girl still under the shock of surprise. And then, with a little cry, unmistakably of fear, she had leaped from the rock, landed lightly upon the grassy sod, and was running along the lake- shore, her hair floating behind her, flowers dropping from it as she ran.
And John Sheldon, the instant of uncertainty passed, was running mightily after her, shouting.
Not until long, long afterward did the affair strike him as having in it certain of the elements of comedy. Now, God knows, it was all sober seriousness. He shouted to her in English, crying, "Stop; I won't hurt you!" He shouted in an Indian dialect of which scraps came to him at his need. And then, breathless, he gave over calling.
She had turned her face a little, and he was near enough to hazard the guess that she was frightened, and that at every shout of his the fear of him but leaped the higher in the throbbing breast under the bearskin. So he just settled down to good, hard running; he, John Sheldon, who, in all the days of his life, had never so much as run after a girl, even figuratively speaking.
Even above the surge of a score of other emotions this one stood up in his heart—he counted himself as good a man as other men, and this girl was running away from him as an antelope runs away from a plodding plow-horse.
He saw her clear a fallen log, leaping lightly, and when he came to it he marveled at its size, and as he leaped feared for a second that he was not going to make it. Already she had gained on him; she was still gaining. She looked over her shoulder again; he fancied that the startled terror had gone, that she was less afraid, being confident that she was the fleeter.
"And yet, deuce take it," he grunted in a sort of anger, "I can't shoot her!"
The little bare, brown feet seemed to him to have wings, so light and fleet were they, so smoothly and with such amazing speed did they carry her on. Seeing that she would infallibly distance him and slip away from him into the woods where he could never hope to come upon her again, he lifted his voice once more, shouting. And then he cursed himself for a fool. For at the first sound of his voice, booming out loudly, she ran but the faster.
Then suddenly Sheldon thought that he saw his chance. Yonder, a few hundred yards ahead of her, was a wide clearing, and in it he saw that a long arm of the lake was flung far out to the right. She would have to turn there; he did not wait, but turned out now, hoping to cut her off before she could come around the head of the arm of the lake, which, no doubt, in her excitement, she had forgotten.
Straight on she ran. He saw her flash through a little clump of shrubs close to the water's edge; saw that she was going straight on, and then guessed her purpose. She was not going to turn out. She had disappeared behind the trees. He thought that he had seen her leap far out, just a glint of sun on the bronze of her outflung arms.
Still he pounded on, turning to the right, certain that he could come to the far side before she could swim it. But the arm of the lake extended farther than he had anticipated; already she was far out, swimming as he had seen no man swim in all his life, and he knew that the race was hers. Panting, he stopped and watched; saw the flashing arms, the dark head with the hair floating behind her.
"It's a wonder that bearskin doesn't drown her!" was his thought.
And then, coming close to where she had disappeared behind the bushes, he saw the bearskin lying at the edge of the lake, the water lapping it. And John Sheldon, who seldom swore; never when the occasion did not demand it, said simply:
"Well, I'll be damned. I most certainly will be damned."
He picked the thing up and looked out across the lake. Just in time to catch the glint of the sun upon a pair of bronze arms thrown high up as though in triumph as his "quarry," speeding through the screen of willows, disappeared again.
"The little devil!" he muttered, a little in rage, a great deal in admiration.
Carrying the trailing bearskin, still warm from the touch of her body, he turned again to the right, trudging on stubbornly along the arm of the lake. There was no particular reason why he should carry the bearskin. But on he went with it, a trophy of the chase. And in his heart was as stubborn a determination as had ever grown up in that stubborn stronghold. He'd find her, he'd get the explanation of this madness, if it was the last thing in the world he ever did.
And then suddenly, lacking neither imagination nor chivalric delicacy, he felt his face growing red with embarrassment. The situation seemed to him to be presenting its difficulties.
SHELDON gave over asking himself unanswerable questions and hurried on around the end of the lake and into the forest beyond where the lithe racing figure had shot through the shadows like a shimmering gleam of light.
He found her trail and followed it easily, for it ran in a straight line and through a meadow where the grass stood tall and had broken before her.
Only infrequently did it swerve to right or left to avoid one of the big trees in her path. As Sheldon went on he saw many a field flower or tuft of grass which she had bent in her passing straighten up; it seemed to him almost that they were sentient little creatures seeking to tell him "She went this way!"
He was fully prepared to follow the track of her wild flight across miles if need be, his one hope being that she continued in a meadow like this which held the sign of her going. He was no longer running at the top speed with which the chase had begun, nor was he walking as he had been for a moment while she swam. His gait had settled down into a steady, hammering pace which he could keep up for an hour, his one hope being now to win with his greater endurance.
For the most part his eyes kept to the ground that he might not lose the trail and much precious time finding it again. Only now and then would he glance up, to right or left, to make certain that she had not turned out at last to double back or seek shelter in the mountain slopes.
And as he came plunging with accelerated speed down a gentle incline, swinging about a grove of young firs which stood with outflung branches interlacing so that they made a dense dark wall, his eyes were upon the ground, watchful for her trail.
For a second he lost it; then, without checking his speed he found it, turning again, a very little, this time to the left to avoid a second thickly-massed group of young firs.
He ran around this, swerved again a very little as he came up out of the hollow and to a flat open space, saw the track leading straight across the level sward, entered a larger grove of firs, lost the trail for a dozen steps, ran on, shot out of the grove and—came to a dead halt, staring in utter amazement.
If at that moment he had been asked who in all the wide world was the simon-pure king of fools, he would have answered in unqualified vehemence, "John Sheldon!"
With a bearskin which he must admit he had acquired rather in defiance of convention, in one hand, with a rifle in the other, his hat back yonder somewhere under the limb which had knocked it off, looking he was sure such a fool as never a man looked before, he was standing with both feet planted squarely in the middle of the main street of a town!
He had more than a suspicion that in some mysterious way he had gotten very drunk without knowing it. He was by no means positive that he was not a raving maniac. If he had been obliged to tell his name at that bewildering second it is a toss whether he would have said "King Sheldon," or "John Fool."
His mind was a blank to all emotions and sensations save the one that reddened his face. If a man had ever foretold that he would some day see a girl out in the woods, upon a lake shore where no doubt she was going to take a bath; that he would first scare her half out of her wits and then wildly pursue her for a quarter of a mile, shouting God knows what madness at her; that he'd grab up the morning robe which she'd worn and come waving it after as he ran; that he'd rush on so blindly that he didn't know what he was doing until he was right square in the middle of a town—well, it would be mild to say that he would have dubbed that man an incurable idiot.
And yet in front of him stood a house, builded compactly of logs and rudely squared timbers, that might have stood there half of a century. To the right stood a house. To the left a house. Straight ahead ran a narrow street, houses upon the right, houses upon the left. In that blindly groping moment he felt that he had never seen so many houses all at once in all the days of his life. And yet he was no stranger to San Francisco or Vancouver nor yet New York!
He hardly knew what to expect first: A great shout of laughter as men and women saw him, or a shot from a double-barreled shotgun.
"If she's got a father or a brother and he doesn't shoot me," he muttered, "he's no man."
But there came neither shout of laughter nor shot of gun. As the first wave of stupefaction surged over him and passed, leaving him a little more clear-thoughted, there came the inclination to draw back swiftly into the trees before he was seen.
But he stood stone still. For at last it was evident that there was no one to see. There was the town, unmistakably a typical, rude mining camp. But it was still, deserted, a veritable city of desolation.
Nowhere did a rock chimney send up its smoke to stain the clear sky; the street was empty, grown up with grass and weeds and even young trees; no child's voice in laughter or man or woman's voice calling; no dog's bark to vibrate through the stillness which was absolute; no sound of ax on wood or of hammer or of horses' hoofs; no stirring object upon the steps which were rotting away, nor at door or window.
No sign of life, though he turned this way and that, searching. Everywhere the wilderness was pushing in again where once man had come, vanquishing it. Before him was the most drearily desolate scene that had ever stood out before his eyes. In some strange way it was unutterably, indescribably sad.
He came on again, slowly. Obeying an impulse which he did not consciously recognize, he stepped softly as a man does in a death chamber. His soul was oppressed, his spirit drooped suddenly as the atmosphere of the abandoned camp fell upon it.
By daylight, gloom haunted the tenantless buildings; by night, here would be melancholia's own demesne. Nowhere else in the world does one find that terrible sadness which spreads its somber wings in the abode of man long given over to the wild to be a lair for its soft-footed children.
More questions demanding answers and all unanswerable. He sought to throw off the influence which had fallen upon him and went on more swiftly, seeking the girl who had fled here. Had she stopped in one of these ruined houses? Was one of them "home" to her? Who lived here with her? And why? Were they, like himself, chance comers, newly arrived? Or did they, like the log houses, belong to this land; were they like everything of man here, being drawn back into the mighty arms of the wild?
This part of the world, the fastnesses stretching from Belle Fortune to Ruminoff Shanty on the Gold River, was what he and his fellows glibly called "new country." What country on the earth is new? What nook or corner has not once known the foot of man and his conquering hand? And, given time, what bit of the world has not in the end hurled its conqueror out, trodden down his monuments, made dust of his labors, and crowned his hearths in creeping vines and forgetfulness, wresting it all back from him?
The thoughts which came to him had their own way in a mind which was half given to the search resumed. Questions came involuntarily; he did not pause or seek to answer them. Hurriedly he went up and down, turning out for fallen timbers, circling tangled growths.
At every open door and window he looked in eagerly, noting less the sagging panels and broken shutters than the dark interiors. Many roofs had fallen, many walls were down, many buildings were but rectangular heaps of ruins grown over grass. But other houses, builded solidly of great logs, with sturdy steep roofs, stood defiantly.
"There was a time when hundreds of men lived here," he thought as he hastened on. "Men and women, maybe, and perhaps children! Why did they go like this? Even a town may die like a man, even its name be forgotten in a generation or two."
Pushing through a rear yard long ago so reclaimed by the wilderness that he must fight his way through brush shoulder high, he came out suddenly upon a path. It ran, broad and straight, toward the lake. There, upon a little knoll, until now hidden from him by the trees, was the largest building of the village, the one in a state of the best preservation. The path ran to the door. On either side of the doorstep, cleared of weeds, was a space in which grew tall red flowers. He stopped a moment, his heart beating fast.
The door was closed,' the windows were covered with heavy shutters. He came on again, walking warily, his eyes everywhere at once. What should a man expect here in the dead city of the Sasnokee-keewan? A rifle ball as readily as anything else. And yet he came on steadily, his own rifle ready.
At last he stood not ten steps from the closed door, wondering. Some one lived here; so much was certain. The well- worn path told it eloquently. Then, too, there were signs of digging about the little flower garden. A woman's work—hers. And she, herself, was she in there now?
"I might go up to the door and knock," he muttered. "The regular way when you want to know if any one is at home! But I have precious little desire to become pile of bleached bones number three."
He lifted his voice and called. A startled squirrel that had been watching him curiously vanished with a sudden whisk of tail, and a big woodpecker upon a distant falling wall cocked a pair of bright eyes at him impertinently. Sheldon waited, turned this way and that, called again. Then again, louder.
"Devil take it," he grunted in sudden irritation. "There's got to be an end of this tomfoolery. If I have to do with crazy folk I might as well know it now as any time."
He went up the two steps to the door and rapped sharply. Still there came no answer. He rapped again and then put his hand to the latch. The door was fastened from within.
"Who's in there?" he called. "Can't you answer me?"
His voice died away into silence; the woodpecker went back to his carpentering. A hush lay over the world about him.
He called again, explained that his intentions were friendly, argued with the silence, pleaded and then lost his temper.
"Open!" he shouted, "or by the Lord I'll beat your old door off its hinges!"
Then, for the first time, he thought that he heard a sound from' within, the gentle fall of a foot as some one moved. His head turned a little, listening eagerly, he heard no other sound.
Lifting his rifle, he drove the butt hard against the door. It creaked, rattled, and held. He struck again, harder.
His rifle was swung back for the third blow when a voice answered him, the voice of a girl, clear but troubled, uncertain, thrilling him strangely with, the note in it he had heard this morning when he awoke, suggesting as it did the wild.
"Wait," said the voice. "Wait—a— little—while."
To describe the voice, to put a name to the subtle quality of it which made it different from any other voice Sheldon had ever heard was as impossible as to describe the perfume of a violet to one who has no olfactory nerve.
But in one respect her speech was definitely distinctive, in that each word came separately, enunciated slowly, spoken with the vaguest hint of an effort, as though her tongue were not used to shaping itself to words at all.
"All right," answered Sheldon. "That's fair. How long do you want me to wait?"
"Just—little—bit," came the clear answer, the little pauses seeming to indicate that she was seeking always for the right word. "Not—damn—long."
"Oh!" said Sheldon.
"Go over by that house that is all broken," continued the voice. "Then I will open the door."
There came a pause, then the words uttered with great impressiveness: "Do what I say almighty quick or I'll cut your white liver out!"
Sheldon obeyed, wondering more than ever. As he went he dropped the bearskin close to the door.
"I'm putting your—your dress where you can reach out and get it," he said as he went.
There was no answer.
AS directed, Sheldon went back down the knoll until he stood near a tumble-down scanty there, some fifty or sixty feet from the sturdy log house, from which he did not remove his eyes. As he went the door opened a very little, just enough for a pair of alert and vigilant eyes to watch him.
When he stopped he was prepared to see a round, brown arm slip out to retrieve the fallen bearskin. But instead the door opened quickly, there stepped out what at first glance seemed to be a boy clad in man's trousers, boots, and terribly torn and patched blue shirt. But her hair lay in two loosely-plaited braids across her shoulders, and hardly the second glance was needed to assure him that here was no boy, but she who had fled before him.
In coming out the door had opened just far enough for her to pass out, then had been closed so quickly that he had had no glimpse of the cabin's interior. She stood still, a hand upon the latch behind her, facing him.
Sheldon raised his hand to lift his hat, remembered and said quietly:
"Good morning," she repeated after him.
He was near enough to guess something of what lay in her eyes. Certainly a strange sort of curiosity underlay her penetrating gaze which seemed in all frankness to search deeply for all that a long look could tell her.
And, it seemed to him, under this look lay another that hinted to him that she'd whirl, jerk the door open, and disappear in a flash if he so much as took a step forward. So he moved back another pace or two, to reassure her, leaning against a fragment of wall.
If she regarded him with fixed intentness, no less did the man stare at her. There was every sign of hasty dressing; she must have drawn on the first garments falling to her hurrying hands. The boots were unquestionably many sizes too large; trousers and shirt were monstrously ill-fitting. And, even so, the amazing thing was that she was most undeniably pretty. And, burned as she was from the sun, she was not an Indian. Her hair was a sun- kissed brown; her eyes, he fancied, were gray.
"I am sorry," said Sheldon after a considerable silence, "that I frightened you just now."
Her gaze did not waver, lost nothing of its steady, searching intentness. He could see no change of expression upon her slightly parted lips. She offered no remark to his, but stood waiting.
"I think," he went on in a little, putting all of the friendliness he could manage into his voice, "that I was at first startled as much as you. I'd hardly expected to stumble upon a girl here, you know!"
If she did know she didn't take the trouble to tell him that she did. There was something positively disconcerting in the scrutiny to which she so openly subjected him.
"You see," he continued his monologue stoutly, determined to overlook any little idiosyncrasies, "it was a surprise to me to see your tracks, in the first place. And then to come upon you like that—and to find this old settlement here— Why, I had always thought that no man had ever so much as builded him a dugout in the Sasnokee-keewan."
He stopped suddenly. It struck him as ridiculous: this was he babbling on while she stood there looking at him like that. Certainly he had given her ample opportunity to say something. Yet she seemed to have not the slightest intention of opening her mouth. Still she watched him as one might watch some new, strange animal.
"What's the matter?" he demanded sharply, her attitude beginning to irritate him. "Can't you talk?"
"Yes." Just the monosyllable, clearly enunciated. She had answered his question; he hoped she would go on. But she made no offer to do so.
"Well," cried the man, "why don't you? You're not keeping still because we haven't been introduced, are you? Good Lord, why do you look at me like I was part of a side show? Didn't you ever see a man before? I'm not trying to flirt with you! Say something!"
His nerves had been tense, and at best his temper was likely to flare out now and then. He wished for a second that she was a few years younger so that he could take her across his knee.
"Flirt?" she repeated after him, lifting her brows. She shook her head. "What must I say?"
The suspicion came upon him that she was secretly enjoying herself at his expense, and he said quickly:
"I should think you could find a number of things to say here where a stranger doesn't come every day. You might even ask me inside and strain no sense of convention. You might offer me a cup of coffee and nobody would accuse you of being forward! You might tell me where I am and what town this is—or was. You might tell me something about the rest of your party, where they are, and when I can have a talk with some one who is willing to talk."
For a moment she seemed to be pondering what he had said. Then, as bidden, she answered, speaking slowly, taking up point by point:
"You cannot come inside. I would lock the door. I would shoot you with a big gun I have in there. It is like yours, but bigger. Coffee?" She shook her head as she had before. "I don't know what that is. This town is Johnny's Luck. I have no one else for you to talk to. You must go away."
Sheldon stared at her incredulously. The short laugh with which he meant to answer her was a bit forced, unconvincing in his own ears. The girl watched him with the same keen, speculative eyes.
"You don't mean for me to believe that you are here all alone?" he demanded.
She hesitated. Then she answered in her own words of a moment ago:
"I have no one else for you to talk to."
"That's pure nonsense, you know," he retorted bluntly. She made no reply.
"I got off my trail and blundered into this place," he went on presently. "I'm going on out presently. I'm not going to trouble you or any of your people."
"That is nice," was the first remark voluntarily given. Sheldon flushed.
"Just the same," he said a little sternly, "I'm not going out like a blind fool without finding out a thing or two. If you're up to some kind of a lark it strikes me that it's run on about long enough. There's precious little use in your pretending to be the only one in here."
By now he knew better than to expect her to speak except in reply to a direct question, and so continued:
"Will you tell me who you are?"
"I am Paula."
"Paula?" he said. "Paula what?"
"Just Paula," quietly.
"But your other name?"
"I have just one name. I am Paula."
For the life of him he did not know what to make of her. There was the possibility that she was playing with him. In that case she played her part amazingly well! There was the possibility that she spoke in actual as well as in seeming sincerity.
"Who is your father?" he asked abruptly.
And at her answer, calmly, quietly spoken, he was startled into the suspicion of the third possibility—madness.
For she had answered gravely:
"He is a king. His name is Midas."
From under gathered brows his eyes probed at her like knives. Was she hoaxing him, or was she mad? Unless she was crazed why did she so cleverly seek to appear so? What maid stands out before a man, stranger though he be, and poses to him in the light of an insane woman? If she were not mad, then why was she striving to make him believe her so? Then why?
He had come to her for answers, and he but got new questions that were, as yet, unanswerable. When he spoke again it was thoughtfully.
"Why do you tell me your father is King Midas?" he asked.
"Because you said to me, 'Who is your father?'"
"And you just naturally and truthfully tell me he is a king! What's the use of this nonsense?"
She made no reply. There was a little silence before he spoke. There came to him clearly the sound as of some heavy object falling upon bare floor within the cabin.
"There is some one else in there!" he exclaimed impatiently. "Who is it? Why don't they come out and answer me sensibly if you won't!"
Positively now there was a quick look of alarm upon her face. For a second he thought that she was going to whisk back into the house. And then she cried hurriedly:
"He is in there—yes. The king! And Napoleon is there and Richard and Johnny Lee. Shall I throw open the door for them to put out their guns and shoot you?"
"Great Heavens!" gasped Sheldon. And to her, wonderingly, "Why should they shoot me? What harm am I doing any one?"
"I know!" Her voice, until now so quiet, suddenly rang out passionately. "You come from the world outside, from over there!" she threw out her arm widely toward the south. "You come over, the mountains from the world outside where all men are bad! Where they fight like beasts for what we have here, where they steal and kill and cheat and lie and snatch from one another like hungry coyotes and wolves! You come here to steal and kill. I know! Haven't others come before you, bad men creeping in from the outside?"
A strange sort of shiver ran through Sheldon's blood. But, with quick inspiration, he asked her:
"And what has happened to them?"
"They died!" was the unhesitating answer. "As you, too, will die and quick if you do not go out and leave us. I should have killed you last night while you slept. But you startled me; I had never seen a man like you. The others had beards; you had no hair upon your face and for a little I thought you were a woman, another like me, and I was glad. And then you woke—and I ran. I should have killed you—"
She broke off panting, her breast rising and falling tumultuously. Her eyes were bright and hard, her tanned cheeks flushed.
"She'd drive a knife into a man sleeping and never turn a hair!" was Sheldon's silent comment.
"I tell you to go!" she flung at him again. "Before I have you killed like the others. What do you want here? What is here that belongs to you? You are looking for gold. I know! That is what the others wanted. Do you want to die as they died?"
"Listen to me!" interrupted the man sharply. "I didn't come here to hurt you. I didn't come for gold. I came because I lost the trail."
"Liar!" she cried out at him.
Silenced, he could but stand and stare at her. And slowly all sense of anger at her words died out of him and into his heart welled a great pity. For no longer did he wonder if she but played a part or was mad.
Again, through the brief silence, there came to him faintly the sound of something stirring within the cabin. He listened eagerly, hoping to guess what it was moving beyond the door she guarded so jealously. But the sound had come and gone and it was very still again.
Was there one person in there? Or were there two? Or more? Man or woman? Surely there was some one, surely there could not be two mad people here! Then why did the one in there hold back, letting her dispute entrance to the stranger? Why was there not another face to show at a crack of the door or at a window?
Questions, questions, and questions! And no one to answer them but a mad girl who said that she was Paula, daughter of King Midas! No; not even Paula to answer. For suddenly she had jerked the door open, slipped inside, and Sheldon heard the sound as of a heavy bar dropping into wooden sockets.
He was quite alone in the empty street of a town that had lived and died and been forgotten. And never in all his life had he been more uncertain what next to do.
LESS for the breakfast without which he had left camp than realizing the wisdom to caching his blankets and provisions, Sheldon's first step was back toward the spot where Buck grazed.
If those within the old cabin meant to seek to escape talking with him they would not stir forth immediately but would peer forth many times, cautiously, to make certain that in reality he was not watching from shelter of the grove. He could dispose of his pack, eat hastily and be again in front of the cabin within less than an hour.
He drew back swiftly, made sure with a glance over his shoulder that the door had remained shut, the shutters of the windows undisturbed, slipped through the fir grove and then broke into a trot, headed up the meadow.
Selecting some tinned goods hurriedly, he rolled everything else, blankets and all, in his canvas, found a hiding place which suited him in a tiny, rocky gorge, piled rocks on top of the cache, and returned for his horse. Buck he led deeper into the forest that lay upon the eastern rim of the valley and left there where there was pasture and water, hobbling him for fear of the long tie rope getting tangled about the bushes which grew under the trees.
When the pack-saddle had been tossed into a clump of these bushes he felt reasonably sure that his outfit was safe for the short time he expected to be away from it. Then, eating as he went, he turned back to the town which Paula, the daughter of Midas, called Johnny's Luck.
As he came again into the abandoned street he examined each ruined cabin as he passed it, stopping for all that still stood, making his way to the door through more than one weed-grown yard, slipping in at door or window where the buildings were still upon the rim of being habitable.
Nor were his puzzles lessened at the signs everywhere that men, when they had given over these dwellings, had gone in wild haste. They had not taken fittings and furnishings with them, at least nothing cumbersome had gone out.
He could picture the exit from the homes that had been almost a frenzied rushing out of doors flung rudely open and left to gape stupidly after their departing masters. Yes, and mistresses. For it was written in dusty signs that women, too, had walked here and had fled as though from some dread menace.
But to a man knowing the vivid tales of the western country as Sheldon knew them here was a. mystery which must soon grow clear as the memory of half-forgotten stories came back to him.
He saw rude chairs and tables standing idly under dust of many, many years' accumulation; chairs which had been pushed back violently as men sprang to their feet, some overturned and left to sprawl awkwardly until, as time ran by, they fell apart and in due time came to disintegrate as all other things physical crumble in the world.
He saw pictures tacked to walls, knew that they had been cheap colored prints or newspaper illustrations; thick earthenware dishes and utensils of iron and tin upon more than one stone hearth, invariably the homes of spiders; cupboards where food had lain and rotted, discoloring the unpainted wood; a thousand little homely articles which in the ordinary course of house vacating would have been packed and taken away.
Johnny's Luck had been a mining town; for no other conceivable reason would men have made a town here at all as long ago as Johnny's Luck gave every evidence of having been builded. And its life had been that of many another village of the far-out land in the days of the early mining madness.
Rumor of gold, strong rumor of gold, had brought many men and some few women, most of the latter what the world calls bad, some few perhaps what God calls good, to answer the call and the lure.
They had been so sure that they had builded not mere shanties, but solid homes of logs; they had remained here for many months—and then, no doubt, the bottom had fallen out of Johnny's Luck. The vein had pinched out; the gold was gone.
And then, so did Sheldon reconstruct the past from the dust- covered ruin about him, word had come to Johnny's Luck of another strike out yonder somewhere, beyond the next ridge, perhaps; perhaps a hundred miles away, that word had come into camp mysteriously as word of gold always travels; men had whispered it to their "pardners" and in its own fashion the word had spread.
There bad been that first attempt at stealing away by stealth as some few hoped to be miles from camp before every one knew. Others had seen; men in that day attributed but the one motive to hasty, stealthy departure.
The stealing away had turned into a mad rush. Some one, a nervous man or an excitable woman, had cried out the magic word, "Gold!" And then homes had been deserted with a speed which was like frenzy; a few precious belongings had been snatched up; chairs and even tables overturned, and down the long street of Johnny's Luck they had gone, fighting for the place at the fore, the whole camp. And, for some reason, they had never come back. Perhaps they had come to learn that Johnny's Luck was unlucky.
It was simple enough after all, he told himself as he came at length to the base of the knoll upon which stood the cabin into which the girl had gone. Like everything else in the world, simple enough when once one understood.
Up and down the Pacific coast, from tidewater some mountainous hundreds of miles inland, how many towns had grown up like Johnny's Luck, almost in a night, only to be given over to the wild again, deserted and forgotten in another night. There are many, some still lifting vertical walls, some mere mounds of grass-grown earth where one may dig and find a child's tin cup or a broken whisky bottle.
Simple enough when one understood, he pondered, staring at the closed door. But what explanation lay just here; this girl could not have been born when Johnny's Luck flourished; whence had she come, and why?
It was broad morning, the sun rising clear above the last of the trees so that its light fell upon the two beds of red flowers. On the doorstep lay the bearskin as he had left it. From the rock and dirt chimney smoke rose. Coming closer to the house he heard now and then a sound of one walking within. He fancied that he heard a voice, hardly more than a whisper.
His purpose taken, he stood watching, waiting. If he had to stay here until some one came out, if he were forced to linger here all day, camp here tonight, he was not going away until the last question was answered.
"I'd be a brute to go off and leave her alone here," he told himself stubbornly. "Or, perhaps, worse than alone. The poor little devil won't know how to take care of herself; God knows what she's up against as it is. Anyway, here I stay!"
The windows remained shuttered; the door stood unopened; the smoke from the chimney grew a faint gray line against the sky and was gone; it was death-still in the house. An hour passed and Sheldon, striding back and forth, on the watch for a possible attempt to slip away through a door which he had found at the rear, grew impatient.
Another hour, and never a sound. Such watching and waiting, with nothing discovered to reward his patience, was the death of what little patience was a part of John Sheldon's makeup.
"I've waited long enough," he muttered.
He strode straight between the beds of red flowers, up the three steps made of logs, and rapped at the door. The sounds died away, as all sounds seemed to do here, swallowed by the silence, echoless, as though killed by thick walls. So he knocked again, calling out:
"I've no habit of prying into other peoples's business, but I am not used to being treated like a leper, either. Open the door or I shall batter it down."
Hurried whispers within, then silence. He waited for a moment. Then swinging back his rifle he drove the butt mightily against the door, close to the latch. There was a little cry then, Paula's voice he was sure, a cry of pure fear.
"Poor little thing," he thought. "She thinks I'm going to kill her!"
But he struck again and the thick panel of the door, dry and old, cracked. Again, and Paula's voice again, this time calling:
"Wait! Wait and I will come!"
"No," he answered in flat stubbornness. "I'll not wait. I am coming inside. Open, the door."
"You cannot! You must not! What is it that you want here? What have we that you would take away from us? Go back into the world outside. Go quick—before we kill you!"
He laughed savagely.
"You are not going to kill me. And we've talked nonsense long enough. I tell you I am not going to hurt you. Who is in there with you? Why doesn't he talk?"
Whispers, quick, sharp, agitated. But no answer. Sheldon waited, grew suddenly angry and struck with all his might. The door cracked again; two long cracks showed running up and down. But the bar within held and the cracks gave no glimpse of the room's interior. He struck once more.
"Wait!" Paula's voice again, strangely quiet. "I am coming."
He stepped back a little, standing just at the side of the door, his rifle clubbed and lifted. There was so little telling what next to expect here in a land which seemed to him a land of madness. He heard her at the door.
She was taking down the bar. He was sure of it. But why was she so long about it? And it seemed to him that in the simple process she made an unnecessary amount of noise. And she kept talking, rapidly now, her voice raised, her utterances almost incoherent as though she labored under some tremendous excitement:
"Don't you see I am opening the door? But you must step back, down the steps. I'll hear you going. I am afraid. You might reach out and seize me. Just a minute now, only a minute. I don't hear you though. You must go down the steps. Then I will come out; then you can come in. I am hurrying— hurrying as fast as I can."
It only whetted his suspicion. What was going on just ten feet from him, beyond that wall? There was no loophole through which an out-thrust gun barrel could menace him, he had seen to that. And, if a gun was thrust out as the door opened, he could strike first; he was ready. But if he went back down the steps—
Suddenly he knew. He heard a little scraping sound which, low as it was, rose above the sound of Paula's young voice. It was at that other door at the back. Some one was there, opening it cautiously. The forest came down close to the house at the back.
He leaped down the steps and ran around the side of the house, of no mind to have them give him the slip this way.
"Hurry!" Paula had heard him, had guessed his purpose as he theirs, and was screaming, "Hurry! He is coming!"
The rear door, little used perhaps, had caught. But as Sheldon raced around the corner of the cabin the door was flung violently open and an astonishingly, wildly uncouth figure shot out, making strange, horrible sounds in his throat as he ran.
It was a man, so tall and gaunt that it seemed rather the caricature of a man. Clad in shirt and trousers, the flying feet were bare. The head was bare, and from it the hair, long and snow white, floated out behind him. The beard, long and unkempt, was as white as the hair of his head.
His eyes—Sheldon saw them looking for one brief moment straight into his own—were the burning, brilliant eyes of a madman. Had there been doubt in the case of the girl there was room for no doubt here. The man was only too clearly a maniac.
Just the one look into the terrible eyes was given to Sheldon. The man ran as Paula had run this morning, but with a greater, more frantic speed. Crying out strange, broken fragments of words he dashed into the trees. And Sheldon stopped.
Paula was still in the house. With little chance to overtake the man, with no wish to have them both escape him, Sheldon whirled and running with all the speed in him, came to the open door. It slammed in his face; Paula, too, had just reached it. But not yet had she had time to make it fast. He threw his weight against it; he could hear her panting and crying out in terror. The door flew open. He was in the house.
But now she was running to the other door. The bar there was still in its place. Her hands lost no time now, but whipped it out, dropped it clattering to the bare floor, jerked the door open.
She was on the steps, outside when Sheldon's arms closed about her. She screamed and tore at his arms as he swept her off of her feet. He marveled at the strength in her; he felt the muscles of her body against his and they were like iron. But he held her.
She struck at his face, beating at him with hard little fists. But he held her. And at that she had in her all the fierceness of a mountain cat. She was pantherine in her rage that flashed at him from her eyes, in the supple strength of her body, in all the fierceness which he had whipped to the surface.
Though she struggled, he brought her back into the cabin. He even managed to slam the door and, while he held her and she beat at him, to drop the bar back into place. He carried her across the room to a tumbled bunk there and threw her down upon it, standing between her and the rear door, still open.
Suddenly she was quite still. She lay there, her breast shaking to the rage and fear that shone in her eyes. She did not seek to move, but lay breathing deeply, watching him.
From somewhere far out in the woods' there floated to them a strange cry billowing weirdly through the stillness.
Sheldon stepped across the room and picked up his rifle.
SHE stirred a very little; then lay still again. Pantherine! The word described her as no other word could do. Even in the little movement there was the litheness and grace that is so characteristic of the monster wild cats. Her eyes moved swiftly with every slightest move on his part.
She was like an animal a man has trapped, watching him narrowly, understanding something of his purpose, groping to read it all. When her eyes left him at all it was to travel in a flash to the door, to come back as swiftly. He still stood in the way. He was almost over her, so that he could be upon her before she was fairly on her feet.
Now the wild rise and fall of her breasts had lessened a little. She breathed more regularly, with now and then a long, lung-filling sigh. She lay with one arm flung above her head, the other at her side. He saw the red marks of his hands upon her wrists and frowned.
He had been as gentle as he could. But only unmerciful strength, not gentleness, could have quieted her. He thought how different she was from any girl in that outside world of which she spoke as a land of wickedness. He, too, kept his eyes upon her, her and the open door. But he glanced about the room. The interior of the cabin was just, what he could have imagined it to be. A few rough chairs, a table, some dishes, a fireplace with a littered hearth, a partition across the room with a bunk on each side.
He found that he was breathing as quickly as she was. His forehead was wet. As he looked down at her, resting, she seemed merely a slender, sun-browned slip of a girl. He marveled at the strength in that trim little body.
"I am sorry if I hurt you," he said quietly when a few moments had passed in silence. "I didn't want to hurt you. I don't want to hurt you ever. Won't you believe me?"
She made no answer, but continued to stare at him, a hint of a frown gathering her brows, her eyes dark with distrust. From the depths of his heart he pitied her. Would it not be better if he turned now and went out of the house, leaving her? If he went his way back over the mountains and into the "outside world," carrying not even the tale to tell of her? Mad, born of a mad father, what hope lay in life for her?
"Little Paula," he said gently, soothingly, as he might have spoken to a very little girl, "I am sorry for you. Very sorry, little Paula. I want to be your friend. Can't you believe me?"
Troubled eyes, eyes filled with distrust and fear and emotions which blended and were too vague for him to grasp, answered him silently. He moved a step; her eyes, full of eagerness, turned to the open door.
"No," he said steadily. "You can't go yet. Pretty soon I am going to let you go; you and your father. And I will go away and not even tell that you are here. He is your father, isn't he?"
"Yes," she said dully.
"All I want now," went on Sheldon, his voice as gentle as he could make it, "is for you to rest and stay with me until your father comes back."
"He will never come back while you are here," she said listlessly. "Never."
"He'll be away a deuced long, long time then," he assured her grimly. "I'll stay all year if I have to. What makes you think he won't come back if I am here?"
"I know," she answered decidedly.
She stopped there. He questioned her still further, but she was defiantly silent, so he drew a chair up and sat down, his rifle across his knees. She watched him curiously, losing not so much as his slightest gesture.
Perplexed, he brought out his pipe, scarcely conscious that he did so. It was his way to smoke at times of uncertainty when he sought to find a way out. He swept a match across his thigh, set it to the bowl of his pipe, drew at it deeply, and sent out a great cloud of smoke.
"You are a devil!" she screamed. "A devil!"
She had leaped to her feet, seeking to stoop under his arms as he sprang in front of her, wildly endeavoring to escape through the open door. But he caught her and carried her back to the bunk. She fought as she had fought before, striking at him, scratching, even trying to sink her teeth into his forearm.
"I'm not the one who is the devil!" he panted as at last he had thrust her back and stood over her again.
His pipe had fallen to the floor. He saw that her eyes were upon it now instead of on him. And the look in them was one of pure terror. She was afraid of a man's pipe!
Suddenly he understood and his abrupt laughter, startling her, whipped her piercing look back to him. She drew away from him, crouching against the wall, ready to strike if he drew closer or to leap again toward the liberty he denied her. And Sheldon, even while he pitied her, laughed. He could not help it.
But in a little, heartily ashamed of himself, and yet grinning over his words, be said to her:
"You poor little thing, that isn't any infernal apparatus! It's just a pipe and the stuff in it isn't brimstone, but merely Virginia tobacco. Everybody smokes outside—that is, pretty nearly all the men do," he added hastily. "But I shouldn't have smoked without asking your consent, in the first place, and I shouldn't inflict that old pipe on any one if he did consent. But, honestly, Paula, there's nothing satanic about it."
"Liar!" she flung at him in scornful disbelief.
He picked up the pipe, knocked out the fire, and stuffed it back into his pocket.
"Look here," he said quietly, his good-natured grin still in evidence at the corners of his mouth and in his eyes; "you've just made up your mind to hate me and call me names. It isn't fair. Give me a chance, why don't you? I'm not half as bad as you're trying to make me out."
She looked her disbelief, offering no remark. She made no pretenses: she hated him, held him in high scorn, would have struck him down had she been able, would dodge out of the door and slip away into the forest if he gave her the chance.
But, sane or mad, there was one characteristic which she had in common with all other human beings. Even through her fear and distrust of him, always had her curiosity looked out nakedly. He sought to take advantage of this to make her listen to him, then to draw her out a little. So, speaking slowly and quietly, he began to tell her of his trip in, of having lost his trail, of many trifling incidents of the journey.
Then he spoke of Belle Fortune, of men and women there, of the sort of lives they led. And of the world beyond Belle Fortune, the world "outside." Of Seattle and San Francisco, of the ships and ferryboats, of stores and theaters, of public gatherings, dances, picnics; of how women dressed and how men gambled—a thousand little colored bits of life with which he wished to interest her.
"Men are not bad out there," he assured her. "Some are, of course; but most of them are not. They help one another often enough; they are friends and pardners, and a pretty good sort."
He talked with her thusly for an hour. Through it she sat very still, her back against the wall, her knees drawn up between her clasped hands, her eyes steady upon his. What emotions, if any, he stirred in her breast, he could not guess. Her expression altered very little—never to show what she thought of him.
He felt rather hopeless, ready to give over in despair, when out of her calm and apparently unconcerned, uninterested quiet came the first swift, unexpected question. He was speaking carelessly of some friends in Vancouver with whom he had visited—the Grahams, who had the bulliest little team of twins you ever saw—
"Tell me about them!" she interrupted eagerly.
Sheldon, in his surprise at hearing her speak at all, lost the thread of his story.
"The Grahams?" he asked. "Why, they—"
"No, the babies," she said. "I have never seen a baby. Just little baby bears and squirrels."
She stopped as abruptly as she had begun, her lips tight shut. But Sheldon had gropingly understood a wee bit of what lay in the girl's heart, and hurried to answer, pretending not to see her return to her stubborn taciturnity.
"Well," he told her, pleased so that his good-humored smile came back into his eyes, "they're just the cutest little pair of rascals you ever saw. Bill and Bet, they call 'em. Just two years when I saw diem last; walking around, you know, and looking on at life as though they knew all about it. And up to 'most anything. They are something like young bears, come to think about it! Just about as awkward, falling over everything. And rolypoly, fat as butter-balls. Why, would you believe it—"
And so forth. Before he got through he made a fairly creditable story of it, combining in the Graham twins all the baby tricks he had ever seen, heard, or read of. He affected not to be watching her all the time, but none the less saw that there was at last a little sparkle of interest in her eyes.
"Poor little starved heart," he thought. "Mad as she is, she is still woman enough to suffer for the want of little children about her."
When he had done with the twins there was a long silence in the cabin. He had pretty well talked himself out, in the first place. And in the second, he wanted time to think. He couldn't sit here and babble on this way indefinitely. Soon or late he must seek actively, rather than thus passively, for the solution to his problem.
Leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head, he smiled at her pleasantly. And he fancied that she was puzzled by him, that almost she was ready to wonder if all men were in truth the creatures of evil she so evidently had thought them. Was she almost ready to believe in him a little bit?
"Swallow some more fire," said Paula suddenly.
"Eh?" muttered Sheldon.
"Yes," she told him. "I won't run this time."
His lips twitching, he drew out his pipe and again lighted it. He saw that she was tremendously interested. The scratching of the match made her draw back as though from a threatened blow, but she caught herself and did not move again. He drew in a great mouthful of smoke and sent it out ceilingward. She watched that, too, interestedly.
"You see," he informed her with a semblance of gravity as deep as her own, "I don't swallow the fire. I just take in the smoke and send it out again."
"Why do you do it?" she wanted to know. "Is it some sort of magic?"
"Bless you, no!" he chuckled. "It's just for fun; a kind of habit, you know. A man smokes just as you'd eat ice-cream or candy, or something that was fun to eat. Just as— By glory!" He caught himself up. "I'll bet you don't know what candy is! Do you?"
She shook her head.
"Those little fire-sticks." She kept him to the subject which now held her interest. "They are magic, though."
He tossed a match to her.
"Light it," he said. "You can do it. You poor little kid!"
But she drew away from it, shaking her head violently. And, taking a chance that he read her character in one particular, he called her "Coward!"
She flashed a look at him that was full of angry defiance, and reaching out quickly took up the match. He saw that her hand shook. But her determination did not. She scratched the match upon the wall, held it while it burned. And her eyes, while the embers fell to her lap, were dancing with excitement.
"Another!" she cried, like a child, in evident forgetfulness of her hostility. "Another!"
She' lighted them one after the other. Over the second she laughed delightedly. It was the first time he had heard her laugh. He laughed with her,'as delighted as she. She struck a full dozen before he stopped her, saying that matches were gold- precious on the trail and must be hoarded.
"Then let me swallow smoke!" she commanded.
The vision of this splendid young girl-animal smoking his black old pipe tickled his sense of humor, and it was difficult for him to explain seriously what in most likelihood would be the result to her..
"You've missed a lot of fun, little Paula," he told her through the cloud of smoke, which seemed of far greater interest to her than were his words. "If you've actually lived here all your life, as I'm beginning to believe you have. Never saw a man smoke; never tasted ice-cream or candy; never saw a two-year-old baby toddling around from one mishap to another; never saw a street-car, or a boat, or a man who had had a shave! By golly," growing enthusiastic over it, "never ate a strawberry shortcake or had a cup of coffee! Whew!"
He put his hand into his pocket. He had seized his lunch from his pack hurriedly and at random. In his haste he had thought to pick out a can of beans and one of corn. He had eaten the beans, and had found that he had not brought the corn, but the one tin of peaches which he had brought with him from Belle Fortune.
Such things as peaches were luxuries; but Sheldon had known aforetime the hunger for sweets which will come to a man when he's deep in the woods. He opened his knife, and under Paula's bright eyes cut out a great circle in the tin top. He speared a half of a golden-yellow peach, and tasted it to reassure her. Then he gave her the can.
"Taste that," he offered.
Paula tasted, a bit anxiously, taking out the peach with her finger-tips. There came into her expression something of utter surprise, then delight little short of ecstasy. And then—he marveled how daintily such an act could be performed —she licked the sirup from her fingers.
"Good?" he chuckled.
Paula smiled at him.
Smiled! The red lips parted prettily; the white teeth showed for a flashing instant. The smile warmed him, went dancing through his blood. It was a quick smile, quickly gone. The white teeth were busy with the second peach.
"They were nice," said Paula. She had finished, and turned to him with a great sigh of satisfaction. Sheldon's peaches were gone.
"I've got a slab of sweetened chocolate in my pack," he told her, trying not to look surprised at the empty tin. "I'll bring it to you. It's like candy."
"You are nice, too," said Paula. "Are all bad men nice?"
Again Sheldon plunged into a long argument meant to convince her that he wasn't a bad man at all. He rather overdid it, in fact, so that had Paula believed all he told her, she must have thought him an angel. But Paula didn't believe.
"You tell me too many lies," she said quietly when he had done.
He protested and went over the ground again. But in one thing he was greatly pleased; at last she talked with him. He felt that at least some little gain had been made. And he hoped that, in spite of her words, she held him in less horror than she had at first.
Once more he sought to draw her out, to get her to talk of herself, of her life, of her father.
"Have you really lived here all your life?" he asked casually.
"Yes," she answered.
"And you know absolutely nothing of the world outside?"
"I know that all men there are bad. That they kill and steal and lie."
"How do you know this?"
"My father has told me."
"'What does he know about it?"
"He knows everything. He is very wise. And once he lived there. Men were so wicked that he left them and came away to live here. He brought me with him. Once," she Informed him gravely, "I was a little baby like the twins. I grew up big, you know—"
"Not so dreadfully big," he protested. "And you live here year in and year out?"
"But the winters? There must be a deuced lot of snow. How do you manage?"
"There is not too damn much snow in here," she informed him. "The mountains all around are so high they stop much of it."
"Young ladies in the world outside," he remarked soberly, though with a twinkle in his eyes, "don't say 'damn.'"
"Don't they?" asked Paula. "Why?"
"They call it a bad word," he explained. "Maybe it is you, in here, who are bad—"
"Papa says damn," she insisted. "He is not bad. He is good."
"We'll let it go, then. Don't other men ever come here?"
"Not many. They never come to Johnny's Luck."
"Papa kills them."
"Good Lord!" The coolness of her statement, the careless tone, shocked him.
"We see their camp-fire smoke sometimes a long way off."
"That's the way you came upon me first, on the other side of the mountain?"
"How was it, then, you came out, and not your amiable father? You don't— don't do the work sometimes, do you?"
"No. I don't like to kill things."
"And your father rather enjoys it?"
"N-no." She hesitated. "But he must. For they are bad, and would hurt us and take away—"
"Take away what?" demanded Sheldon sharply.
But she shut her lips tight, and the suspicion came back into her eyes.
"Oh, well," he said hastily, "it doesn't matter. Only you can rest assured that I didn't Come to take anything away. Unless," lightly, though with deep earnestness under the tone, "you will let me take you and your father back with me?"
The look of suspicion changed to sudden terror.
"No, no!" she cried. "We won't go—"
"You'd see other women, and they'd be good to you," he went on gently. "You'd see their babies, and you'd love them. You'd have girls of your own age to talk with. You've got to believe me, Paula. The world isn't filled with wicked people That's all a mistake."
He thought that she wanted to believe him. She looked for one brief instant hungry to believe. He pressed the point. But in the end she shook her head.
"Papa has told me," she said when he had done. "Papa knows."
The picture of that gaunt, wild-eyed, terribly uncouth man with brain on fire with madness was very clear in his mind. And how she trusted in him, how she believed in his wisdom To Sheldon, here was the most piteous case of his experience. He wondered if the whole affair would end in his taking the girl in his arms by sheer brute strength and so carrying her out of this cursed place. Or, after all, would it be better, better for her, if he went away and left them?
"I don't know what to do!" he muttered, speaking his thought.
A little sound at the door startled him. He turned swiftly, his hands tightening about his rifle.
A squirrel squatted on its haunches on the door-step, its bright, round eyes fixed on him in unwinking steadiness. With quick flirt of bushy tail a second squirrel appeared from' without. He leaped by his brother, landed fairly inside, saw Sheldon, and turned, chattering, and went scampering out. From the yard he, too, looked in curiously. There came the third, drawing near cautiously until he, too, sat up on the door- step.
Paula called to them softly, so softly that Sheldon, at her side, barely heard the call. It came from low in her throat, and was strangely musical and soothing. She called again. The squirrels pricked up their ears.
At the third call one of them came through the doorway, hesitated, made a great circle around Sheldon so that the bushy tail brushed the wall, and with a quick little jump was on the bunk and under the girl's arm. His brothers, emboldened, followed him. From Paula's protecting arms they looked out at Sheldon with a suspicion not unlike that which had been so much in her own eyes.
The girl cuddled them, cooing to them, making those strange, soft sounds deep in her throat. She looked up at Sheldon with the second of her quick smiles.
"They are Napoleon and Richard and Johnny Lee!" she told him brightly. "They are my little friends. Kiss me, Napoleon!"
And Napoleon obeyed.
IT was high noon. Sheldon needed no glance at his watch to tell him that. He was hungry.
He went to the door, which had remained open all morning—left so in hope of the return of the mad man—and closed it. Paula's eyes followed him intently. He made the door fast by putting its bar across it. A bit of wood from a pile of faggots by the fireplace he forced down tight between the bar and the door, jamming it so that if the girl sought to jerk it loose it would take time. He treated the bar of the front door similarly.
The clip of cartridges he slipped out of his rifle, dropping it into his pocket. He had thrown no cartridge into the barrel. Then he put the gun down, turned again toward Paula, and said smilingly:
"Turn about is fair play. I gave you a can of peaches; suppose that you treat me to the lunch?"
An instant ago she had been teasing Napoleon and showing no hint of distress. Suddenly now her lips were quivering; for the first time he saw the tears start into her eyes.
"Won't you go away?" she asked pleadingly. "Please, please go away!"
"Why," he said in astonishment, "what is the matter? Don't you want to give me something to eat?" \
"Oh," she cried, even her voice shaking, "I'll give you anything if you'll only go away! You are bad, bad to keep me here like this; to drive papa away—"
"I didn't drive him away. I don't want him away. I am waiting for him to come back. That's all I am waiting for!"
"But he won't! While you are here he won't come back. And, out there, he will die."
"Die!" muttered Sheldon. "What's the matter with him?"
Slowly the tears welled up and spilled over, running unchecked down her cheeks. Sheldon, little used to women, shifted uneasily, not knowing what to do, feeling that he should do something. Napoleon, wiser in matters of this sort, made his way to her shoulder and rubbed his soft body sympathetically against her cheek.
"Open the door," begged Paula. "Be good to me and open the door. Let me go to him."
"You would not know where to find him," he protested.
"Oh, yes, I would! I would go to him, running."
"He is sick?" he asked.
Other tears followed the first, unnoticed by the girl. Sheldon thought of the Graham twins: they cried that way some time, only more noisily. They kept their eyes open wide and looked at you, and the tears came until you wondered where they all came from.
"Two times," she said, her voice trembling, "I have thought he was dead!" She shuddered. "I have seen dead things. Oh, it is terrible! This morning I thought he was dead! He did not answer when I talked with him. And he lay still; I could not feel him breathe. I ran out. I was frightened. I cried out aloud. You heard me and ran to kill me, and I ran here. And he was not dead! Oh, I was glad! But if you do not let me go to him now—he will die—I know he will die. And I will be all alone—and it gets so still sometimes that I can't breathe. Please let me go! Please be good to me!"
She came to him hurriedly. Napoleon sprang down and chattered in a corner. She caught up Sheldon's hand and held it, her eyes lifted to his pleadingly.
"Don't be bad to me," she murmured over and over. "Be good to me, and let me go to him."
When Bill and Bet came to him this way he knew what to do with them. He picked them up, an arm about each one, and carried them about adventuring until their mama expostulated. And, surreptitiously now and then when no one was looking, he kissed their red, little, moist mouths.
"Please," said Paula. "I shall not call you bad any more. I shall say you are good and love you. Please."
"Hang it!" muttered John Sheldon.
"Please!" said Paula.
"Please!" said Paula. She laid her wet cheek against his hand. "Please!"
"Now look, here, young lady," he told her, flattering himself that he had achieved a remarkable dignity, and looking more awkward than John Sheldon had ever looked before; "I'll compromise with you. You say you know where he is? All right. Sit down and well eat, you and I. You will then show me the way, and well go and find him and bring him back here. I haven't hurt you, have I? I won't hurt him. No," as her lips shaped to another "please," "I'm not going to let you go alone. We go together—or we stay right here. Which is it?"
Paula frowned. Then she wiped away the tears. Whether some deep feminine instinct had told her that they had almost served their purpose but were useless now will, perhaps, never be known. She went across the room to a rude cupboard, and brought from it a blackened pot containing a meat stew. Sheldon was hungry enough to dispense with the stew being warmed up. Merely to make conversation to divert her thoughts from her father's danger, he said carelessly:
"You must have trouble getting your meat? You can't have much ammunition." He tasted the stew, and found it, although salt was noticeably wanted, savory and palatable. "What sort of meat is it?" he asked.
"Snakes!" said Paula.
Sheldon had swallowed just before putting the last question. Paula was given the joy of seeing his tanned cheeks pale a little. A look of horror came into his eyes. Then he caught an expression of lively malice in hers, malice and mirth commingled.
"Snakes and lizards," said Paula. "We catch 'em in holes—"
"You little devil!" muttered the man under his breath. And to show her that he knew now that she was making fun of him, he went back to his stew. "Just the same, Miss Paula," he told her threateningly, "if we ever do get to dine outside I'll take you to dinner some time, and I'll order oysters and shrimps for you. And crab and lobster, by glory! I wonder what you'll say at that?"
Paula didn't know, didn't have any opinion on the subject.
"They are fishes," she hazarded the opinion with an uncertain show at certainty. "We eat fishes, too."
He ate his scanty meal, insisting upon her coming to sit across the table from him. She watched him, but refused to eat. Plainly she was still deeply distressed. Her eyes were never still, going from him to the door, to the rifle on the floor by him, to the door again. But she made no further attempt at escape.
Meanwhile he took this opportunity to examine the cabin more carefully than he had done so far. A broken bottle stood in a corner, serving as a vase for a handful of field flowers. Upon the walls were a number of pictures gleaned years ago from newspapers—one a view of the business section of a city, one a seascape, one a lady in a ball dress of about 1860 or 1870, one a couple of kittens.
Upon the wall on Paula's side of the partition was a bulge, which was evidently the young woman's wardrobe, covered over with a blanket hung from pegs. An ax with a crude handle lay on the floor. A long, heavy box served both as receptacle for odds and ends, and, covered with a plank, as a bench.
"Now," said Sheldon, "shall we go and find your father?"
Paula did not hesitate, nor did she again seek to= dissuade him from his purpose.
"Yes," she said.
He went to the rear door and opened it.
"You must understand," he told her, standing in the way so that she could not pass him, his rifle in his right hand, his left extended to her, "that I am not going to take any chances of losing you too. You can run faster than I can, and I don't want you to prove it again. You must give me your hand."
For an instant she drew away from him, the old distrustful look coming back.
"I would like to kill you!" she said in a way which made him believe that she meant what she said. Then she came to him and slipped her hand into his.
So they went out into the sunlight, side by side, Sheldon's hand gripping Paula's tightly.
"Which way?" he asked.
"This way." She nodded toward the forest closing in about them at the east. That way the madman had gone. She seemed to feel no uncertainty, but walked on briskly, holding as far away from him as she could manage so that her arm stretched out almost horizontally from her shoulder.
So they went' on for a hundred yards or so, through the great trees that stood like living columns all about them. Every nerve tense, Sheldon sought to watch her, trusting her as little as she him, and at the same time keep a lookout for her father.
One thing he had missed from the cabin which he had expected to find there. If the madman had killed those' wanderers who incurred his kingly displeasure by venturing into his realm, then he must have taken their guns with their other belongings.
There had been no rifle leaning against the wall, no pistol to be seen. What had become of them? Certainly no adventuring prospector had ever come in here without, at the least, his side- arms. It was quite possible that the madman kept them secreted somewhere in the forest; that he had run for a rifle; that even now he was crouching behind a clump of bushes, his burning eyes peering over the sights.
At every little sound Sheldon turned this way or that sharply. There was so little calculating what a madman would do! But he must take his chances if he did not mean to turn tail and run out of the whole affair. And he told himself that it had been perhaps a matter of years since a stranger had brought fresh ammunition here; that the madman would have long ago exhausted his supply hunting.
They went in silence. Paula's eyes showed a great preoccupation; Sheldon had little enough mind for talk. As the forest grew denser about them, and the undergrowth thickened, they came into a narrow path, well trodden. Now Paula, despite her evident distaste, was forced to walk close at his side, sometimes slipping a little behind him. He judged that they had gone a full mile before they came to a distinct forking of the trails.
"We go this way," said Paula, indicating the trail leading off toward the right.
They turned as she directed. Sheldon felt a tremor run through the girl's arm and looked at her inquiringly. But the emotion, however inspired, had passed. She came on, her hand lying relaxed in his, walking close at his side, passive.
Presently she said:
"We must watch for him now. We are near the place."
On either hand were many small trees, here and there a fallen log, everywhere small shrubs which he did not recognize, thick with bright red berries. He watched Paula, watched even more for the madman. They came into a cleared space as wide as an ordinary room.
"Look yonder!" cried the girl sharply.
She had thrown up her left hand, pointing across his breast. He looked swiftly.
In an instant she was no longer passive. With all of that supple strength which he knew to lie in that beautiful body of hers, she had thrown herself against him, pushing at him. His weight was greater, so much greater than hers, that though taken unaware he was barely budged two paces.
But that was ample for the purpose of Paula. He heard a sharp crackling of dead branches and leaves, the ground gave way under his feet, and crashing through a flimsy covering of slender limbs and twigs he plunged downward, falling sheer.
He threw out his arm to save himself, his rifle was flung several feet away, Paula had jerked free, and with the breath jolted out of his body, he lay upon his back in a pit ten feet deep struggling to free himself of the branches which he had brought with him in his fall.
At last he stood up. He had strained an ankle in striking, he did not know for the moment whether or not he had broken his left arm. His hands and face were scratched, his body was sore, his face grew red to a towering rage.
Standing at the brink of the pit, stooping a little to look down at him, was Paula. He had never seen a look of greater, gladder triumph upon a human face.
"You are not very smart," said Paula contemptuously, "to get caught in a trap like that. Bears are smarter!"
John Sheldon, for the first time on record, swore violently in the presence of a young woman. She did not appear in the least shocked; perhaps she was accustomed to occasional outbursts from her father. Rather, she looked delighted. In fact, she clapped her hands, and there came down to him, to swell his rage, her tinkling laughter.
"When I get out of this I'm going to spank you," he growled, meaning every word of it. "Good and hard, too! Don't you know you might have broken my neck?"
"You are not coming out," dimpled Paula. "If you are very good I will feed you every day and bring you water."
Sheldon answered her with an angry silence. There is no wrath like that which has in it something of self accusation; he might have expected something like this. Turning his back on her he sought the way out of the bear pit. Forthwith his anger, like a tube of quicksilver carried out into the hot sun, mounted to new heights while he did not.
The trap was cunningly made, must have required weeks in the excavation. At the bottom it was some ten feet wide; at the opening above his head perhaps not over eight feet. Thus its walls sloped in at the top, and he promptly saw the futility of trying to scramble out. He would have to use his sheath-knife; hack hand holds and dig places out for his feet, and at that he saw that he would have his work cut out for him.
And his rifle lay on the ground above!
A sudden, disquieting vision was vividly outlined in his imagination. Suppose that the madman came now! He could stand above, and if he had nothing but stones to hurl down— The vision ended with a shudder as Sheldon remembered two bleached piles of bones.
Crouching, he leaped upward, seizing the pit's edge. The soil crumbled, gave way. He slipped back. He heard Paula's laughter, coolly taunting. He crouched, leaped again, furious as he found no hand hold. To try again would but be to make a fool of himself.
Among the broken branches about him he sought one strong enough to bear his weight. He stood it upright against the wall of the pit. With his knife in one hand driven into the bank, the other hand gripping the leaning branch, he sought to climb out. And then, from across the pit, at his back, Paula called sharply:
"Stop! I am going to shoot!"
He slipped back and turned toward her. She was on her knees, his rifle in her hands, the barrel looking unnaturally large as it described nervously erratic arcs and ellipses. But Paula's eyes, looking very determined, threatened him along the sights.
With a feeling of devout thankfulness he remembered that he had taken out the clip of cartridges at the cabin. Then, with sudden sinking heart, he remembered also that before he opened the door to come out he had again slipped the clip in.
What he could not remember, to save him, was whether or not he had thrown a cartridge into the barrel!
"I've got one chance out of a thousand, and a cursed slim chance it is!" he' told himself grimly. "She can't miss me at this range if she tries!"
Here lay his one chance: he had not thrown a cartridge into the barrel, and if the girl knew nothing of an automatic rifle, he might have time to get out yet before she discovered how to operate it.
These two "ifs" struck him at that moment as the tallest pair of ifs he had ever met.
He racked his brains for the answer to that one question: "Did I throw a load into, the barrel?" One moment he was certain that he remembered doing so; the next he was as certain that he had not. He was very uncomfortable.
"I've got to shoot you!" Paula was crying. "I don't want to, oh! I don't want to shoot you. But you would kill us. You would kill papa and—I'm going to shoot!"
"For God's sake shoot and get it over with, then!" muttered Sheldon. He didn't think that he was a coward, but he knew that he was white as a ghost. And be didn't even know that the gun was loaded!
The gun barrel wavered uncertainly. The girl's finger was on the trigger that a very slight pressure would set off, and it made him faint to see how that finger was shaking! Paula had one eye shut tight; the other peered wildly along the sights. One instant she was aiming at his stomach, the next at his knees.
Paula shut both eyes and pulled the trigger. After a century- long second in which there was no discharge, Sheldon laughed loudly if somewhat shakily. And, seeing his one chance now about to bring him his safety, he lost no more time in inactivity, but began again with knife and dead branch to try to make his way out.
Paula sprang to her feet, her cheeks that had been pale growing suddenly flushed, and with the gun at her shoulder, pulled again and again at the trigger. Sheldon managed to get half-way out, lifted his hand to grasp the brink—and slipped back again.
Then the girl, crying out angrily, threw down the gun, whirled, and disappeared in a flash. Sheldon struggled manfully to work his way out of his pit before she should be lost to him entirely in the woods. But when at last he was out, and had caught up his rifle, the still woods about him hid her, giving no sign which way she had gone.
IN the wilderness which is the Sasnokee-keewan a man seeking to escape a pursuer need not have the slightest difficulty. This fact Sheldon was forced to admit immediately.
There were trackless forests where a fugitive could laugh at a score of hunters, rocky slopes over which he could run, leaving no sign of his passing, thickets in which he might lie in safety while a man who was looking for him went by so close that one might easily toss a stone to the other.
But for an hour Sheldon sought for Paula and her father, hoping that through some fortunate chance he might stumble upon them. He returned to the forking of the trails where the girl had directed him to the right. Now he took the other path, leading toward the northeast. But in a little while it branched and branched again, and there were no tracks in the grassy soil to help him.
He followed one trail after another, always coming back when there had been nothing to persuade him that he was not perhaps setting his back toward those he sought. And in the end he gave over his quest as hopeless and retraced his steps to Johnny's Luck.
The back door was wide open as he had left it. He stepped inside, moving cautiously, realizing that one or both of them might have returned here before him. But there was no sign that either had done so. The other door was shut, the bar across it. The cabin's interior had been in no way disturbed since he had been there last.
It seemed that there was nothing that he could do now. To be sure he might rifle their few belongings in an endeavor to learn who they were, so that if he was forced to go back alone to the "world outside," he could see to give word of them to any relatives they might have. But he disliked the job; certainly he would resort to no such action until it had become evident that it was the only thing to do. He went out, closed the door after him, and turned his back upon Johnny's Luck. For, while he had the opportunity, it would be well to look to Buck and to his pack.
His horse he found browsing leisurely in the grove where he had left him. The pack in the gulch had not been disturbed. Sheldon went to it for a fresh tin of tobacco; made into a little bundle enough food for a couple of meals, and with a thoughtful smile he slipped his one slab of chocolate into his pocket. Then, having moved Buck a little deeper into the grove, he turned again toward Johnny's Luck. Soon or late the madman or the girl would come back to their cabin. While his patience lasted Sheldon would wait there for them.
This time, when he came again into the cabin, where still there was no sign that its owners had been there since he had left it, he closed the back door and flung the front one wide open. For if the madman and the girl came back, Sheldon preferred to have them come this way, so that he could see them in the clearing that had once been a street of Johnny's Luck. Then, with nothing else to do, he strode back and forth in the rough room and smoked his pipe and stared about him.
So it was that at last one of the pictures upon the wall caught and held his attention. It was an old linocut from a newspaper, held in place by little pegs through the corners. The man pictured might have been fifty or he might have been thirty; the artist had achieved a sketch of which neither he nor his subject need be proud. The thing which interested Sheldon was the printed legend under the drawing:
Charles Francis Hamilton, Professor of Entomology in Brownell University, Author of The Lepidoptera of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, A Monogram upon the Basilarchia Arthemis, etc.
In ten lines was an article "of interest to the scientific world," announcing that Professor Hamilton, representing the interests of the newly endowed College of Entomology, an institution whose aims "are the pervestigation into the rarer varieties of the lepidoptera flying in the North American altitudes over 7,000 feet," was preparing for an expedition into the less known regions of the Canadian northwest.
Here was matter of interest to John Sheldon. That such a clipping should be found upon the wall of a log cabin in the Sasnokee-keewan in itself set him musing. But as he stood looking at it other thoughts, more closely connected with the matter in his mind, suggested themselves. Perhaps the madman had also been a scientist, an entomologist, hence a man of education. That would explain how it came about that Paula spoke an English which was not that of a rough miner.
But another chance discovery brought Sheldon closer to the truth. The cupboard door was open. In plain sight upon a low shelf was a thick volume. Sheldon took it up. It was an abstrusely technical treatise upon butterflies by Charles Francis Hamilton, Ph.D., and was dedicated:
TO MY DEAR WIFE PAULA
"Good Lord!" muttered Sheldon.
To be sure there might have been no end of explanations beside the one which presented itself to him first. But here was a tenable theory, one to which he clung rather more eagerly than he as yet understood.
The madman was no other than Charles Francis Hamilton, entomologist of note about 1860. Not only had the man not always been mad, but at one time had a brilliant mind. He had come into the unknown parts of the great Northwest, so much of which is still unknown to-day, even though men have made roads through it. And there he had lost his sanity.
One could conceive of some terrible illness which had broken the man and twisted his brain hideously, or of an accident from which merely the physical part of him had recuperated, or of some terrible experience such as is no stranger in the wilderness, hardship on top of hardship, starvation, perhaps, when a man is lost and bewildered, some shock which would unseat the reason.
Somewhere he had found Paula. It might be as she herself said, that he was her father; that he had brought her, a little girl, into the mining country. Or it was quite as conceivable that he had "acquired" some little motherless, fatherless waif, no blood kin to him, and had reared her as his own daughter, naming her "Paula." In any case, it was made clear why she did not use the speech of the illiterate.
And it was equally obvious that the girl might be sane.
"Of course she is!" said Sheldon, disgusted with himself for his perfectly natural suspicions. "What girl raised in a place like this all her life by a madman wouldn't be a trifle—different?"
And with renewed interest and impatience he awaited their return. Meanwhile he turned the pages of the book slowly. Here and there he came upon a slip of paper, yellow with the years, upon which were notes set down neatly and in a small, legible hand. For the most part these notes consisted of Latin names and abbreviations which meant nothing to John Sheldon. Against each annotation there stood a date. These dates went back as far as 1868; some were as recent as 1913.
"Get an alienist and an entomologist together over this thing," thought Sheldon, "and they could figure to the day when Hamilton went mad!"
For distinctly the more recent notes were in the same hand but not inspired by the same brain as the earlier ones. In the latter there was the cold precision of the scientist; in the others the burning enthusiasm of a madman.
A note in the body of the text awoke in Sheldon this train of thought. Under the heading Papilioninae (The Swallow Tail Butterflies) there was written in lead pencil:
To-day I have discovered IT! Immortal itself, it shall make me immortal! Alt. 10,000 ft. Aug. 11, '05.
Sheldon turned a couple of pages. Here were further notes under a new heading, Sub-family Parnassiinae. The words were:
I was misled by the osmateria in the larva. IT is a Parnassian. And the fools think there are only four upon the continent! I have found the Fifth. But I was right about its immortality. Measurement: about nine feet from tip to tip. It is found xxxxx. Its food is xxxxx. Ho! This is my secret! Alt., xxxxx. Date, xxxxx. F.C.H.
Sheldon shook his head and sighed. To him the penciled words were strangely pathetic. So plainly was there to be seen the working of the scientific brain which sought to tabulate important facts in connection with the new Parnassian, so evident the insane cunning which compromised by putting down a string of crosses to baffle him who might come upon these notes.
"There is but the one in the world and I have found it!" was a foot-note. And then, scattered through the volume were such penciled jottings as:
I have named it. It is Parnassius Aureus Giganticus. The wings are of gold!
Giganticus flies at sunrise and at sunset.
I have set my trap at Alt. xxxxx. This time I shall get him!
Only one in the world! But it will oviposit in nineteen days! I shall raise another one. There is but one egg.
A new peak for my trap. The Alt. is wrong.
The only Parnassius in the world whose wings are not white, but of gold; whose hind-wing tail prolongations are like Papilio. This is the Golden Emperor of Space, the Monarch of the Infinite, Master of Eternity and Immortality! For its diet is that elixir, rising mistlike from xxxxx!
Oh! I must not write it down! Not even little Paula must guess this.
Flight of incredible speed. I have estimated to-day that my Golden Giant travels at the rate of 1 mi. in 12 sec. id est, 300 mi. per hour! He might sail around the world and other eyes than mine never see him. This is why he has remained throughout the centuries for me to discover. F.C.H.
Another fool from the world outside has tried to steal my secret from me. I killed him.
I am Midas, King of Gold; he is Parnassius Aureus Giganticus, Great Golden Monarch of Space. We are Immortals.
Sheldon stared out through the open door, his gaze going over the dead, forgotten town, and to the little lake lying languid in the sunshine. For the instant he forgot Charles Francis Hamilton and his thoughts were all for Paula.
A girl reared in the solitude, taught the weird, wild fancies of a madman, accepting insanity for infallible wisdom! How should a man deal with such as she must be? If Midas died—then what?
"Would she go with me back to the world?" he wondered. "Or is the rest of her life to be that of a wild, hunted thing? Even if I can find her, which is extremely doubtful, can I convince her that the strongest beliefs of her whole life are wrong?"
In truth he found that his perplexities were but growing. But with his jaw set he vowed to himself that if he did find her he'd take her out with him if he had to bind her with a rope, like the wild thing she was. Suddenly there came to him through the stillness a long-drawn cry of pure terror. It came from far off, back of the cabin toward the mountainside.
Rifle in hand Sheldon ran out of the house and plunged into the forest.
THE hope which stood high in John Sheldon's breast was short lived. There was that one cry, undoubtedly Paula's, then only the silence broken by Sheldon's crashing through the bushes. Now and then when he stopped to listen he heard only his own heavy breathing.
But he pushed on, deeper into the woods. Her voice had floated to him clearly; she could not be very far away, and he knew the general direction. But when he' came at last to the foot of the mountain where there were long lines of low cliffs he had found nothing. And, although he did not give up as the hours passed and the sun turned toward the west, his search went unrewarded.
He went back and forth along the base of the cliffs, fearing that she had fallen, that that scream had been whipped from her as she plunged over a precipice. He breathed more easily when he could be assured that this was not the case. After a while he even called out to her, crying "Paula! Where are you? I won't hurt you." But there was no answer.
Why had she cried out like that? One suspicion came early and naturally. Perhaps to draw him away from the cabin so that she or the madman could slip back to it. He had retraced his steps when the thought came to him, running. But as before there was no sign that another than himself had recently visited the house.
Late in the afternoon great black thunder clouds began to gather upon the mountain tops. They billowed up with the wind- driven swiftness of a summer storm, piling higher and higher until the sky was blotted out.
A peal of thunder, another—deep rumbles reverberating threateningly. A drop of rain splashed against his hand. He could hear the big drops pelting through the leaves of the trees; scattering drops kicked up little puffs of dust in dry, bare spaces. A forked tongue of lightning thrust into the bowels of the thick massed clouds seemed to rip them open. The rain came down in a mighty downpour. The rumble' of the thunder was like the ominous growl of ten thousand hungering beasts.
The lightning stabbed again and again, the skies bellowed mightily, the forest shivered and moaned like a frightened thing under the hissing impact of the sudden wind. The dry ground drank the water thirstily, but even so, little rivulets and pools began to form everywhere. The rain, like a thick veil blown about by the wind, hid the mountains or gave brief views of them. For fifteen minutes the storm filled sky and forest noisily. Then it passed after the way of summer showers, and Sheldon came out from the makeshift shelter of a densely foliaged tree.
He was a mile or more from Johnny Luck. The storm over, he turned back on his trail again, determined to gain the cabin before the daylight was gone, to wait there again for those for whom it was futile to search. Then the second time, unexpectedly, he heard Paula's voice calling.
"Where are you?" it cried. "Oh, where are you?"
He stepped out of the trail, slipping behind a giant pine. She could not be a hundred yards away; he thought that she was coming on toward him, that she was running.
The world was filled with a strange light from the lowering sun shining through the wet air, alight which shone warmly like gold, which seemed to throb and quiver and thrill as it lay over the forest. It gave to grass and tree a new, vivid green, a yellow flower looked like a burning flame. Out of a fringe of trees into a wide open space Paula came.
She came on, running with her own inimitable, graceful swiftness, until she was not a score of paces from him. Here she stopped abruptly, looking this way and that eagerly, listening. Sheldon, his heart hammering from his own eagerness, stood still. If she came a little nearer—
"Where are you?" she called again. "Man from the world outside, where are you?"
Sheldon stared in amazement. She was calling him, she was seeking him, running to him!
Before he could answer, her quick eyes had found him out. With a strange look in them which he could not fathom, she ran to him. She was in the grip of some emotion so strong that she was no longer afraid of him, so that she laid her hand for the fraction of a second upon his arm as she cried brokenly:
"Come! Come quickly!"
"What is it?" he demanded, wondering. "What do you want? What is the matter?"
"You must help him," she answered swiftly. "He says to bring you. But you must hurry. Run!"
Again she had touched him, was tugging at his sleeve. He looked at her curiously, even suspiciously, not unmindful of the bear-pit of this morning. But her eyes were wide with alarm not inspired by him, alarm too sincere to be mistrusted. Since all things are possible, it might be that the madman had sent her to lure Sheldon into some further danger. But there was only one way to know.
"Go on," he said crisply. "I'm with you."
She turned then and sped back the way she had come, Sheldon running at her heels, she turning her head now and then, accommodating her pace to his. This way and that they wove their way through the forest. In a little they were again under the cliffs standing upon the eastern rim of the valley. In the open now, he carried his rifle in two hands, ready.
But here at least was no trap set for him. Paula, running on ahead of him, now suddenly had dropped to her knees, and for the first time Sheldon saw the prone body of the madman. The girl had taken his head into her lap and was bending over him; the gaunt, hollow, burning eyes blazed full at Sheldon. And they were filled with malice, with lurking cunning, with suspicion, and unutterable hatred. But the man made no effort to rise. Sheldon came on until he stood over him.
"He fell from the cliffs?" he asked, looking down for a second into the eyes of Paula which, filled with anguish, were turned up to him.
She sought to answer, but her voice broke; she choked up and could only shake her head. He looked away from her to the head resting in her lap. There was reason enough for the dread in Paula's breast; the man was dying!
"Tell me," said Sheldon softly, "can I do anything for you? Is there any way I can help you?"
The burning eyes narrowed. The old man lifted a shaking hand and pushed the tangled beard away from his lips.
"Curse you!" he panted. "Why are you here?"
"Why, father!" cried Paula. "You told me to bring him!"
"Him?" It was a mutter, deep in the throat, labored and harsh. "You were to get a doctor, girl! This man is a thief, like the others. He comes to steal our fortune from us."
Both bewilderment and terror stared out of the girl's eyes. Her hand on the old man's brow drew the matted hair back, smoothed and smoothed the hot skin.
Fully realizing the futility of seeking to reason with unreason, nevertheless Sheldon said gently: "I didn't come to steal anything. I was just loafing through the country, got lost, and came here."
"Liar!" scoffed the other. "I know what you want. But you can't have it; it is my secret!"
"But, Father," pleaded Paula, her lips trembling, "why did you send me for him if he—"
"Mr. Hamilton," began Sheldon.
The old man frowned.
"Hamilton?" he muttered. "Who is Hamilton? Where is Hamilton?"
"You are," said Sheldon stoutly. "Don't you remember? Charles Francis Hamilton, professor of entomology in Brownell University?"
"Brownell University?" There came a thoughtful pause. "Yes; of course. I am Charles Francis Hamilton, Ph.D., M.D., professor of entomology. Who said that I wasn't?"
"Then, Dr. Hamilton, yon ought to be able to tell by looking at me," and Sheldon grinned reassuringly, "that I am no scientist! I don't know the difference between a bug and an insect; I swear I don't! I'm just a mining engineer out of a job and down on the rocks."
"Then," querulously, "you didn't come looking for—"
"For the Parnassius Aureus Giganticus?" smiled Sheldon. "No. And though you may not believe it, I don't come looking for gold either!"
His words had a strange, unlooked-for effect. He had hoped that they might a little dispel suspicion. Instead, the madman jerked away from Paula's hands, sought to spring to his feet, and achieved a position, half-kneeling, half-squatting, his whole body shaken, a wild fury in his eyes.
"My Parnassius!" he shrieked. "My Parnassius! He comes to steal it away from me; it and my immortality with it! Curse him and curse him and curse him! He knows; he has stolen my secret. He says 'Parnassius Aureus Giganticus!' He knows its name, the name I have given it. He says 'Gold!' He knows that the Parnassius is to be found only where the mother lode of the world is bared! That there is a little invisible mist, a vapory elixir, which rises from gold in the sun, and that my Parnassius lives upon it, drinks it in, and that that is why it is immortal! He knows; curse him, he knows, he knows!"
He was raging wildly; his words came in a tumbled fury of sound like the fall of waters down a rocky cliff; his body grew tense to the last muscle, and then shook again as with an ague. Paula, upon her feet now, her hands clasped in a mute agony of suspense, turned frightened eyes from him to Sheldon.
Slowly the wreck that was Charles Francis Hamilton, one time man of scientific note, straightened up; the tall, gaunt form, swaying dangerously, stood erect. A terribly attenuated arm was flung up, then the forearm drawn across the brow as though with the motion which pushed back the streaming white hair he would clear the burning brain too.
Then, just as Sheldon was prepared for a mad attack of the pitifully broken figure, the pale lips parted to a cry such as he had never in all his life heard. It was a cry of pure triumph; the voice was wonderfully clear now and went ringing through the silence like a bell's tinkling notes. The eyes, too, were clear, bright as before, but now triumphant, like the voice, untroubled, filled with the sheer ecstasy of perfect gladness.
"Look!" cried the madman. "It is the Golden Emperor of Infinity! Look! He is coming—to me!"
Erect, he no longer swayed. The long right arm thrown out, pointed toward the western sky and was rigid, unshaken. For the > moment the figure was dominant, masterful; the gesture demanded and received obedience. In his final moment, Charles Francis Hamilton stood clothed in conscious power, unshaken in a great faith—triumphant. There was no other word for him then.
"Look!" cried the madman.
But was he mad?
For both Paula and John Sheldon turned and looked—and saw what the old man saw. There in the strange, weird light in the west, clear against the sky, were a great pair of wings flashing like pure beaten gold, as a graceful, speeding body described a long, sweeping curve, seemed for a moment to be dropping below the mountain-tops, then rose, climbing higher and higher.
Higher and higher—until it was gone, until, as the wide wings trembled in the vault of the clearing heavens, John Sheldon saw that they were no longer beaten gold, but just the feathered wings of a great eagle, metamorphosed for an instant by a trick of sun.
But it was gone. Gone with it the soul of a madman. Without a cry, his old lips forming into a smile indescribably sweet, his eyes still bright with victory, he stooped, stooped farther, his legs weakened under him, he settled down, rested a moment, fell backward. His Golden Emperor of the Infinite had borne away upon its golden wings the soul which craved and now won—immortality!
"He is dead!" said Paula lifelessly. "He is dead!"
More moved than he had thought to be, Sheldon knelt by the quiet body. The fretful pulse was still, the tired heart was at rest, the fever-ridden brain slept.
"Yes," he said quietly as, kneeling, he removed his hat and looked up pityingly Into Paula's set face. "He is dead. Poor little Paula!"
She stared at him with her eyes widening in eloquent expression of the new emotions in her breast. She stood very still, her hands clasped as they had been when the old man rose to his feet. Her brown fingers were slowly going white from their Own steady pressure. Sheldon could only wonder gropingly what this tragedy would mean to her. Other girls had lost fathers before now; but when had a girl lost every one she knew in the world as Paula had lost now?
There was nothing for Sheldon to say, so he remained a little kneeling, his head bowed in spontaneous reverence, waiting for the burst of tears from her which would slacken the tense nerves. But it did not come. Presently Paula drew nearer, knelt like Sheldon, put her two warm hands upon the cold forehead. Sheldon saw a shiver run through her. She drew back with a sharp cry.
"Dead!" she whispered. "Dead!"
"Poor little Paula," he said again in his heart. Aloud he said nothing.
After a while he got to his feet and went away from her, dabbing at his own eyes as he went, grumbling under his breath. He wanted to take her into his arms—as he did the twins, Bill and Bet— to hold her close and let her cry, and pat her shoulder and say, "There, there!" There was much of kindness and gentleness and sympathy under the rough outside shell of John Sheldon, and it went out unstintedly to a slip of a girl who was alone as no other girl in all the world.
When he came back she was sitting very still, her hand patting softly one of the cold, lifeless hands. She looked up curiously, speaking in a quiet whisper:
"He will never wake up?"
"Not in this world," answered Sheldon gently. "But maybe the soul of him is already awake in another world."
"Where the Golden Butterfly went?" whispered Paula.
"You saw it?"
"Yes. With beautiful wings all of gold. Father knew it was like that. Has his soul gone away with it? Up and up and beyond the clouds and through the sky and to the other, world?"
And John Sheldon answered simply, saying:
"Yes, my dear."
Paula was very still again, her eyes thoughtful.
"What will we do with—him?" she asked after a long silence, the first hint of tears in her eyes.
Then he told her, explaining as he would to Bill and Bet, as one talks with a credulous child, hiding those things upon which man is so prone to look as horrible, showing as best he knew that there is beauty in death. He spoke softly, very gently with her, and her eyes, lifted to him, might have been those of little Bet.
"You will get flowers for him," he said at the end. "Hundreds and hundreds of flowers. You will put them all about him; we will make him a pretty, soft bed of them; we will cover him with them. And every year, in the spring, other flowers will grow here and blossom and drop their leaves on his place. And—and, little Paula, maybe he will be watching you and smiling at you and happy—"
It spite of him his voice grew hoarse. Paula sat now with her face hidden in her crossed arms. He could see a tear splash to her knee.
When the sun rose after the long night it shone upon a great mound of field-flowers hiding a lesser mound of newly turned earth, and upon a golden-brown maiden lying face down in the grass, sobbing—and upon a new John Sheldon.
For into his life had come one of those responsibilities which make men over and, together with the responsibility, a tumult of emotions born no longer ago than the dewdrops which the morning had hung upon the grass.
DURING that tragic day Sheldon never lost sight of the bewildered girl—she seemed just breathless and stunned rather than grief-stricken— for more than half an hour at a time. He watched over her while seeming to be busy rifle cleaning or fishing for a trout for luncheon. Now and then he spoke, just a little homely word of no importance other than the assurance to her that she was not utterly alone. Not once did she return an answer or offer a remark.
In the late afternoon she brought great armfuls of fresh flowers, heaping them upon the wilted ones. As night came on she stood looking wistfully at them for a long time. Then she turned and, walking swiftly, went back to Johnny's Luck. John Sheldon went with her.
They had their supper together, sitting opposite each other at the crude table. Paula ate little, nibbling absent-mindedly at the slab of chocolate, pushing the fish aside untasted, drinking the water set before her. Sheldon made coffee, and she watched him curiously as he drank the black beverage; but she did not taste it.
"Look here, Paula," he said when the silence had lasted on until after he had got his pipe going, "We've got some big questions ahead of us to answer, and we can't begin too soon now. After all, death comes to us all, soon or late; it came to your father's father and mother; it has come to mine; it will come to you and me some day. While we live we've got to be doing something. You've got to decide what you are going to do. I am going out of here in a few days, and you can't stay here all alone."
"I can," she answered steadily. "I will."
"Come now," he objected, speaking lightly; "that's all wrong, you know. It can't be done. Why in the world should a young girl like you want to live all alone here in the wilderness? Before, when your father was with you, it was different. Now what is there to stay for?"
"I shall stay," said Paula gravely, "until some day the big golden butterfly comes and takes me away, too."
"How would you live?" he asked curiously.
"As I have always lived. We have the traps father and I made. I could make others. I know how to catch fish. I know many plants with leaves and roots good to eat when you cook them in water."
"But what would you do all the time?"
"Why," said Paula simply, "I would wait."
"Yes. For the big butterfly."
Then Sheldon set himself manfully to his task. He sought to reawaken the interest which she had shown when he spoke of the world outside; he spoke of the thousand things she could see and do; he told her of other men and women; of how they dressed, of how they spent their lives, of their aims and ambitions, of their numerous joys; of aeroplanes and submarines; of telephones and talking machines; of music and theaters and churches. But Paula only shook her head, saying quietly:
"I shall stay here."
"And never see any children?" asked Sheldon. "Little babies like Bill and Bet; little roly-poly rascals with dirty faces and bright eyes and fat, chubby hands? You'll miss all that?"
"I'll stay here," said Paula. "This is my home."
And no further answer did he get that night.
As her weary body, which had known so little rest during the last two days, began to droop in her chair, Sheldon left her, going to spend the night out in the open in front of the cabin. Paula closed the door after him, saying listlessly, "good night," in response to his.
"You are not afraid of me any longer, are you, Paula?" he asked as he left her.
"No," she answered. "I am not afraid of you now. You have been good to me."
When, in the morning, he came to the cabin the door stood open. When he called there was no answer. When he went in the cabin was empty.
Even then he did not believe that she had again fled from him. He went hurriedly through the woods until he came to the heaped- up mound of flowers, fearing a little, hoping more that he was going to find her here. But, though he looked for her everywhere, he did not find her; though he lifted his voice, calling loudly, she did not answer.
It was a weary, empty day. At one moment he cursed himself for not having guarded against her flight; at the next he told himself that he could not always be watching her, and that there was no reason why he should have suspected that she was going to slip away now. When some little sound came to him through the still forest he looked up quickly, expecting to see her coming to him. When she did not come he wondered if he would ever see this wonderfully dainty, half-wild maid again.
All day long he did not give over seeking her, calling her. He grew to hate the sound of his own voice bringing its own echo alone for answer. He began to realize what her going meant; he began to see that he wanted not only to take her with him back into his own world, but that he wanted to give up that life to showing her the world he had told her about. He wanted Paula.
He tramped up and down until he covered many a mile that day. He ransacked his pack for any little articles of food which might be new to her, and they remained upon the cabin table untouched.
Noon came, and afternoon and evening, and without Paula he was lonely, he who had come far from the beaten trails to be alone!
In the early night he builded a fire in the cabin's fireplace for the light and companionship of it, and sat staring into the flames and smoking his pipe, and all the time listening eagerly. A dozen times he thought that he heard her light footfall. But she did not come.
He got up and went to the door, standing long looking out into the quiet night, star-filled. The moon was not yet up. The night was so still, so filled with solitude, that he felt a sudden wonder that a girl, even a girl like Paula, could be far out in it, alone.
Where was she? Lying face down in the thick of the woods, crushed with the loneliness which had touched even him? Or sitting somewhere in the starlight, her lovely face upturned, her deep eyes seeking to read the eternal riddles of the stars and the night, her soul grasping at vague thoughts, her mind struggling pitifully with the problems of life and death?
All night he sat before the fire, dozing now and then, but for the most part listening, waiting. When morning came he made a hurried breakfast, and, his plan for the day formed during the hours of darkness, left the cabin.
He had come to the conclusion that there must be some hiding- place, some shelter other than the cabin, which Paula and her father had used. To that place, no doubt, the madman had fled when he had sought to avoid Sheldon; thither, perhaps, Paula had gone last night.
It might be another cabin, far out; it might be a cave in the cliffs. Sheldon inclined to the latter belief. At any rate, he told himself determinedly that he would find this retreat, and that in it he would discover those belongings of the men Hamilton had killed, their knives and rifles, their boots, perhaps. And he hoped to find Paula.
He went straightway to the cliffs near which Dr. Hamilton had died. They stretched a mile or more to both north and south. Sheldon admitted to himself at the beginning that he had his work cut out ahead of him; thorough search here for the mouth of a possible cave might consume weeks. But all the time in the world was his. He set about his task methodically.
All day he climbed in and out among the boulders and spires of rock. At night he had found nothing. He returned to the cabin and, throwing himself upon the bunk which had once been Dr. Hamilton's, slept soundly.
In the morning he went out again, beginning his search where yesterday's had ended. That day passed like the other, ended as it had done. In the forenoon he killed a young buck that had come down to the creek to drink, skinned it, and hung the meat upon the limb of a tree to dry, building a smudge under it.
"If I have to stay here until snow flies," muttered Sheldon, "well, then, I'll stay!"
A week passed. During it he had had no sign that Paula existed—no hint of the theoretical "hiding-place" which he sought. But each day he spent long hours in the quest, striving from the first glow of dawn to the coming of dusk. He had searched out every spot of the cliffs to the south, climbing high-up, looking everywhere. Now, in the same systematic way, he turned toward the north. And upon the second day of the second week he came upon part of that which he sought—that and something else.
Upon a broad ledge a score of feet from the ground, hard to climb up to, grew a dense clump of bushes. Only because it was his plan to look everywhere did he go up there at all. On the ledge he saw at once what, from below, had been masked by the bushes.
There was a great hole into the cliff-side through which a man might walk standing erect. Beyond, where dim dusk brooded at midday, was the cave. A glance, as he went in, showed that it was part nature's work and part man-made. At his feet lay a shovel with fairly fresh dirt adhering to it. Beyond was a pick. Other picks and shovels, several of them, lay at one side of the long chamber.
"Paula!" he called softly. "Are you here?"
But Paula was not there. As he moved on deeper into the cavern he saw that no one was there. There were two tumbled piles of blankets, one on each side. Against the wall by one of them were five rifles, all of old patterns, not one an automatic. He picked them up, one after the other. None was loaded; there were no unfired cartridges with them.
Several sharpened stakes had been driven into the walls which Sheldon found to be of clay almost rock-hard. From these pegs hung cured skins of both deer and bear, wildcat skins, the pelts of other animals. From one was suspended a gay little array of old, old-fashioned gowns like those in pictures of our grandmothers? Sheldon sighed, touched them lingeringly, and called again, "Paula!"
He passed on down the length of the cavern, which had been driven thirty or forty feet into the mountainside. At the far end a pick was sticking into the wall. Near the pick was a bag made of deerskin. He struck it with his foot. It was heavy, seemed filled with small stones. Wondering, he turned the contents out upon the floor.
And, at the sight disclosed there to him in the dim interior of this gloomy place, the soul of John Sheldon, mining engineer, adventurer into the far-out places, thrilled within him.
The bag was half-filled with gold nuggets.
"Bait for a madman's trap!" he said aloud, huskily. "To catch the Golden Emperor of Space!"
He went down on his knees, the gold caught up into his hands, his eyes bright with the old, forgotten, but never dying, fever. He ran back to the cave's opening, carrying his hands full, staring at the yellow crumbling particles, light-stricken. He had never seen such gold; he had never believed gold existed like this.
He whirled and hastened back into the cavern, going to the bag which still lay on the floor. The pick, still in its place, caught his eye. He jerked it out, breaking away a dozen handfuls of the hard clay. He struck the clay with his boot-heel, breaking it apart. And from the fragments which he carried to the light there shone up at him the dull yellow of gold.
The old, old fever rode him hard, having taken him thus unaware, leaping out upon him from the dark of the unexpected. His hands shook with it. He had found gold before; he had known the wild fires it sets in a man's brain. But never had he found gold like this, never had he known so seething a tumult.
"All men look for the mother lode!" he whispered. "Why shouldn't it be waiting somewhere for the man who can find it? Why shouldn't this be it?"
He had forgotten Paula. A man forgets everything when he finds gold, much gold, pure, yellow virgin gold. Often enough he ceases for the moment to be a man, and is like a wild beast hungering, tearing at bloody meat.
He went here and there eager and breathless, driving the pick into the time-hardened clay, taking with shaking hands the earth he dug out, muttering to himself as he found again and again that there was in it the glint and gleam of gold.
"There is nowhere in the world a man so rich as I!" he whispered. And then he thought of Paula.
He went out upon the ledge outside, and sat down in the sunshine and lighted his pipe. This gold was not John Sheldon's unless John Sheldon were utterly contemptible. It was Paula's. Her birthright. Was he the man to rob a woman? The man to cheat a girl? A girl like Paula? He shook his head.
"I was drunk on the cursed stuff!" he said half-angrily.
But if Paula did not come back? H, look as he might, days came and went, the summer passed, and Paula did not come back and he could not find her?
Then a curious fact presented itself to John Sheldon. It was this: If he were confronted with a choice in the matter, if he had to lose the wealth untold lying at his finger-tips or lose forever the golden-brown maiden—why, he could snap his fingers at the gold!
"Something has come over me!" he grunted at the thought.
He had never been more right in his life. In his own words, something had come over him.
A MONTH passed, and John Sheldon, who might have taken the gold and left the girl, let the gold lie and sought Paula.
They were lonely days, and more than once he went to his horse for companionship. The provisions which he had brought in with him had dwindled away to nothing. His coffee was gone; he drank water for breakfast. His bacon was but a haunting memory. Beans and onions and potatoes were with the snows of yesteryear.
He missed them, but could manage upon venison and trout. But, especially after meals and before he turned in at night, when he looked into the black and empty bowl of his pipe, he shook his head and sighed.
Verily, a mighty thing is a man's love for a woman! For, even when his tobacco was a thing of the past, John Sheldon, a man who loved his smoke, stayed on and contented himself with sunflower leaves!
He had once said, "I'll stay if I have to wait until snow flies!" Now he said, "111 find her if I have to stick on the job all winter."
There were days when he roamed for miles into the mountains; nights when he slept far out, as Paula was perhaps sleeping. Again, there were times when he slept in the cabin or at the mouth of the cavern, on the ledge.
Many a time, at dusk, he climbed to some peak to look down over the valley and distant ridges, hoping to see somewhere the blaze of her fire. Day after day he sought some other cave, some other distant cabin where, perhaps, she was hiding; where it might be that supplies bad been cached against such a time as this. But the month went and another was well on the way, and his search was fruitless.
There came a soft night, throbbing with star radiance, glowing with the promise of a full moon, just rising beyond the eastern ridge, when Sheldon, tired and spiritless, came back into Johnny's Luck from a long tramp to the north.
As he trudged back along the trail he had come to know so well he told himself that he was all kinds of a fool; that if he were not he'd put all the gold upon Buck's back that a horse could stagger under, take upon his own shoulders all that he could carry, and go back to Belle Fortune and the world beyond.
But he knew that he would not go; that he would remain there until he found Paula or knew that she was dead. Lately he had come to fear that one of the innumerable possible accidents had befallen her.
Head down, weary and hopeless, he made his slow way toward the cabin. He was within a score of paces from the house when he stopped with a sharp exclamation, standing staring.
She was there. She had heard him, was before him to the door, had come out into the night to meet him. The man stood looking at her in bewilderment. For here was no Paula whom he knew; no brown maiden of the bearskin; no boyish slip in miner's boots and clothes.
Oddly, the memory of something he had seen years ago and many miles from here, came into his mind vividly. He had once found one of those strange plants called the fire-flower which flourish in bleak desolation, companionless; a wonderful creation with burning, blood-red heart, which upon the barren sweep of lava- beds is at once a living triumph and a mystery of loveliness.
This girl, here alone in the land of abandoned ruins and lonely, desolate isolation, was like that.
The Fire Flower!
Paula came on, taking short little steps which alone made her some new Paula. He looked down and saw a pair of incredibly small slippers, seeming brand new, flashing in the moonlight. He looked up and saw Paula smiling!
"I have come back to you," said Paula, "because you are good and I love you. Are you glad?"
She had come back to him like a great lady out of an old love- story. Her hair was in little, old-fashioned curls; her neck and throat gleamed at him modestly from the laces and ribbons which bewildered him; upon her brown fingers were dainty mitts of 1870, and the gown itself, it was an elaborate and astounding ballgown, all wide hoops and flounces, so that she seemed to him to be riding out to him upon a monster puff-ball. That her costume should, to the last detail, be like that of the lady of the picture, she carried in her hand a fan.
Paula with a fan! Paula in hoop-skirts!
"You are not glad?" cried Paula, her lips, which had been curved to her laughter, suddenly trembling.
"Glad!" cried John Sheldon. "Glad!"
And, a hundred things clamoring for expression, that was all that he said. Paula put her head to one side, like a bird, and looked at him. He looked at her, her curls, her sleeves, her ribbons, her fan—
Then Paula, gifted with understanding, laughed.
"Are you afraid of me now?" she asked softly.
"Before God—yes!" muttered Sheldon huskily.
"Kiss me!" said Paula.
She put up her red mouth temptingly, her eyes teasing and gay. And Sheldon hesitated no longer and was afraid no longer, but took her into his arms, hoop-skirts and flounces and ribbons and laces and all, and held her tight, tight.
"Oh!" laughed Paula. "You are like a bear. You hurt, and you will ruin my dress. I have saved it always—always and always—for—"
"For what, Paula, dear?" he asked.
"For to-night—for you!" she answered, her voice an awed whisper like his own.
"But you didn't know—"
"Oh, I always knew! Some time you would come, a man tall like poor father, and strong—and young—and beautiful! I would dream of it sometimes and it would make me shiver, like cold. Like you make me shiver now!"
"Oh, my dear, my dear," said Sheldon. "And I have been afraid you would never come back; I have walked mile after mile looking for you."
"I know!" nodded Paula brightly. "I watched you every day."
"What!" he cried.
"Oh, yes. I will show you to-morrow where I hid. It is up there in the rocks; another cave like the one you found— but you could never find this one unless I showed you, it is so cunningly hid. And every day I watched you. And one day I saw you go into the forest and come back with a strange, terrible beast bigger than a black bear following you, and I was afraid and screamed. I thought that it would eat you and—"
"Beast?" asked Sheldon.
"Yes. But you had caught it and tied a rope around its neck and were its master. Oh, I was glad I was so far away you didn't hear me. And proud that you were so strong a man, so brave a man to capture a big beast, bigger than a bear—"
"Buck! It was my horse, child! And you don't even know what a horse is?"
"No," answered Paula, wondering. "Do they bite?"
"This one you shall ride—"
"I won't!" cried Paula. "I'll run away!"
Laughing, they turned together to the cabin, where he soon had a splendid fire going.
"Why did you wait all these days before coming back?" he asked her.
"Because," she told him, "I was afraid at first. But I saw you were good; you did not hurt things just to be bad; when you passed close enough to me I could see that your face was kind."
"Go on," grinned Sheldon. "Don't stop there!"
"And," she ended happily, "I wanted to see what you would do. Whether you would go on looking for me a long time, or whether you would forget me and go away."
"And if I had gone?"
"Then," said Paula simply, "I should have gone high up on the cliffs and thrown myself down. It would not have been much fun to live if you had gone away."
"And now," he asked her soberly, "are you afraid to go back with me, Paula? Back into the world outside?"
Paula crept closer up to him, putting her hand into his.
"Yes," she said. "I am afraid."
"But," insisted Sheldon, "you must see, Paula—"
"I am afraid," she repeated, and as he turned toward her he saw that her eyes, lifted to his, were shining softly with utter trust. "I am afraid, but I will go with you and be glad."
"God bless you!" he whispered.
"Tell me something," she said presently. "Something I have not asked you, but have wanted to know."
"Yes, Paula. What is it?"
He wondered just how far back in his life history that question was going to search. She made herself comfortable in his arms. Then she asked her question:
"Have you a name, too?"
"What!" he replied, taken aback. "Don't you even know my name?"
"No," sighed Paula, the sigh bespeaking a vast and somewhat sleepy content. "What is it?"
"It is John Sheldon," he told her.
"Then—some day—I will be Paula John Sheldon?"
"Just as soon," cried John Sheldon, "as you and I can get to the nearest priest on the Little Smoky! And we start in the morning!"
"AHA, mes enfan's," said the Father Dufresnil to the two other old men with whom he chummed at the settlement on the Little Smoky. (It was ten days later.) "The worl' is fonny! To me to-day there comes out of the woods a man, such a man, tall an' big an' his face like a boy, glad! An' with him a lady— oh, mes enfan's, a lady of beauty, with eyes which dance like the eyes of him! An' this lady, she is dress' like the gran'-mother of ol' Thibault there—in a ballgown! An' I, when I marry them! Oh, there was not to doubt the love in their four eyes! But see what that big man put in my han'!"
He dropped it to the oilcloth of the table.
It was a real golden nugget.
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Non sibi sed omnibus
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