RIDGWAY OF MONTANA
(STORY OF TO-DAY, IN WHICH THE HERO IS ALSO THE VILLAIN)
WILLIAM MACLEOD RAINE
AND THAT KINGDOM
"Where you and I through this world's weather Work, and give praise and thanks together."
1. Two Men and a Woman 2. The Freebooter 3. One to One 4. Fort Salvation 5. Enter Simon Harley 6. On the Snow-trail 7. Back from Arcadia 8. The Honorable Thomas B. Pelton 9. An Evening Call 10. Harley Makes a Proposition 11. Virginia Intervenes 12. Aline Makes a Discovery 13. First Blood 14. A Conspiracy 15. Laska Opens a Door 16. An Explosion in the Taurus 17. The Election 18. Further Developments 19. One Million Dollars 20. A Little Lunch at Alphonse's 21. Harley Scores 22. "Not Guilty"—"Guilty" 23. Aline Turns a Corner 24. A Good Samaritan 25. Friendly Enemies 26. Breaks One and Makes Another Engagement
CHAPTER 1. TWO MEN AND A WOMAN
"Mr. Ridgway, ma'am."
The young woman who was giving the last touches to the very effective picture framed in her long looking-glass nodded almost imperceptibly.
She had come to the parting of the ways, and she knew it, with a shrewd suspicion as to which she would choose. She had asked for a week to decide, and her heart-searching had told her nothing new. It was characteristic of Virginia Balfour that she did not attempt to deceive herself. If she married Waring Ridgway it would be for what she considered good and sufficient reasons, but love would not be one of them. He was going to be a great man, for one thing, and probably a very rich one, which counted, though it would not be a determining factor. This she could find only in the man himself, in the masterful force that made him what he was. The sandstings of life did not disturb his confidence in his victorious star, nor did he let fine-spun moral obligations hamper his predatory career. He had a genius for success in whatever he undertook, pushing his way to his end with a shrewd, direct energy that never faltered. She sometimes wondered whether she, too, like the men he used as tools, was merely a pawn in his game, and her consent an empty formality conceded to convention. Perhaps he would marry her even if she did not want to, she told herself, with the sudden illuminating smile that was one of her chief charms.
But Ridgway's wary eyes, appraising her mood as she came forward to meet him, read none of this doubt in her frank greeting. Anything more sure and exquisite than the cultivation Virginia Balfour breathed he would have been hard put to it to conceive. That her gown and its accessories seemed to him merely the extension of a dainty personality was the highest compliment he could pay her charm, and an entirely unconscious one.
"Have I kept you waiting?" she smiled, giving him her hand.
His answering smile, quite cool and unperturbed, gave the lie to his words. "For a year, though the almanac called it a week."
"You must have suffered," she told him ironically, with a glance at the clear color in his good-looking face.
"Repressed emotion," he explained. "May I hope that my suffering has reached a period?"
They had been sauntering toward a little conservatory at the end of the large room, but she deflected and brought up at a table on which lay some books. One of these she picked up and looked at incuriously for a moment before sweeping them aside. She rested her hands on the table behind her and leaned back against it, her eyes meeting his fairly.
"You're still of the same mind, are you?" she demanded.
"Oh! very much."
She lifted herself to the table, crossing her feet and dangling them irresponsibly. "We might as well be comfy while we talk;" and she indicated, by a nod, a chair.
"Thanks. If you don't mind, I think I'll take it standing."
She did not seem in any hurry to begin, and Ridgway gave evidence of no desire to hasten her. But presently he said, with a little laugh that seemed to offer her inclusion in the joke:
"I'm on the anxious seat, you know—waiting to find out whether I'm to be the happiest man alive."
"You know as much about it as I do." She echoed his laugh ruefully. "I'm still as much at sea as I was last week. I couldn't tell then, and I can't now."
"No news is good news, they say."
"I don't want to marry you a bit, but you're a great catch, as you are very well aware."
"I suppose I am rather a catch," he agreed, the shadow of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
"It isn't only your money; though, of course, that's a temptation," she admitted audaciously.
"I'm glad it's not only my money." He could laugh with her about it because he was shrewd enough to understand that it was not at all his wealth. Her cool frankness might have frightened away another man. It merely served to interest Ridgway. For, with all his strength, he was a vain man, always ready to talk of himself. He spent a good deal of his spare time interpreting himself to attractive and attracted young women.
Her gaze fastened on the tip of her suede toe, apparently studying it attentively. "It would be a gratification to my vanity to parade you as the captive of my bow and spear. You're such a magnificent specimen, such a berserk in broadcloth. Still. I shan't marry you if I can help it—but, then, I'm not sure that I can help it. Of course, I disapprove of you entirely, but you're rather fascinating, you know." Her eye traveled slowly up to his, appraising the masterful lines of his square figure, the dominant strength of his close-shut mouth and resolute eyes. "Perhaps 'fascinating' isn't just the word, but I can't help being interested in you, whether I like you or not. I suppose you always get what you want very badly?" she flung out by way of question.
"That's what I'm trying to discover"—he smiled.
"There are things to be considered both ways," she said, taking him into her confidence. "You trample on others. How do I know you wouldn't tread on me?"
"That would be one of the risks you would take," he agreed impersonally.
"I shouldn't like that at all. If I married you it would be because as your wife I should have so many opportunities. I should expect to do exactly as I please. I shouldn't want you to interfere with me, though I should want to be able to influence you."
"Nothing could be fairer than that," was his amiably ironical comment.
"You see, I don't know you—not really—and they say all sorts of things about you."
"They don't say I am a quitter, do they?"
She leaned forward, chin in hand and elbow on knee. It was a part of the accent of her distinction that as a rebel she was both demure and daring. "I wonder if I might ask you some questions—the intimate kind that people think but don't say—at least, they don't say them to you."
"It would be a pleasure to me to be put on the witness-stand. I should probably pick up some interesting side-lights about myself."
"Very well." Her eyes danced with excitement. "You're what they call a buccaneer of business, aren't you?"
Here were certainly diverting pastimes. "I believe I have been called that; but, then, I've had the hardest names in the dictionary thrown at me so often that I can't be sure."
"I suppose you are perfectly unscrupulous in a business way—stop at nothing to gain your point?"
He took her impudence smilingly.
"'Unscrupulous' isn't the word I use when I explain myself to myself, but as an unflattered description, such as one my enemies might use to describe me, I dare say it is fairly accurate."
"I wonder why. Do you dispense with a conscience entirely?"
"Well, you see, Miss Balfour, if I nursed a New England conscience I could stand up to the attacks of the Consolidated about as long as a dove to a hawk. I meet fire with fire to avoid being wiped off the map of the mining world. I play the game. I can't afford to keep a button on my foil when my opponent doesn't."
She nodded an admission of his point. "And yet there are rules of the game to be observed, aren't there? The Consolidated people claim you steal their ore, I believe." Her slanted eyes studied the effect of her daring.
He laughed grimly. "Do they? I claim they steal mine. It's rather difficult to have an exact regard for mine and thine before the courts decide which is which."
"And meanwhile, in order to forestall an adverse decision, you are working extra shifts to get all the ore out of the disputed veins."
"Precisely, just as they are," he admitted dryly. "Then the side that loses will not be so disappointed, since the value of the veins will be less. Besides, stealing ore openly doesn't count. It is really a moral obligation in a fight like this," he explained.
"A moral obligation?"
"Exactly. You can't hit a trust over the head with the decalogue. Modern business is war. Somebody is bound to get hurt. If I win out it will be because I put up a better fight than the Consolidated, and cripple it enough to make it let me alone. I'm looking out for myself, and I don't pretend to be any better than my neighbors. When you get down to bed-rock honesty, I've never seen it in business. We're all of us as honest as we think we can afford to be. I haven't noticed that there is any premium on it in Mesa. Might makes right. I'll win if I'm strong enough; I'll fail if I'm not. That's the law of life. I didn't make this strenuous little world, and I'm not responsible for it. If I play I have to take the rules the way they are, not the way I should like them to be. I'm not squeamish, and I'm not a hypocrite. Simon Harley isn't squeamish, either, but he happens to be a hypocrite. So there you have the difference between us."
The president of the Mesa Ore-producing Company set forth his creed jauntily, without the least consciousness of need for apology for the fact that it happened to be divorced from morality. Its frank disregard of ethical considerations startled Miss Balfour without shocking her. She liked his candor, even though it condemned him. It was really very nice of him to take her impudence so well. He certainly wasn't a prig, anyway.
"And morality," she suggested tentatively.
"—hasn't a thing to do with success, the parsons to the contrary notwithstanding. The battle is to the strong."
"Then the Consolidated will beat you finally."
He smiled. "They would if I'd let them; but brains and resource and finesse all count for power. Granted that they have a hundred dollars to my one. Still, I have elements of strength they can't even estimate. David beat Goliath, you know, even though he didn't do it with a big stick."
"So you think morality is for old women?"
"And young women," he amended, smiling.
"And every man is to be a law unto himself?"
"Not quite. Some men aren't big enough to be. Let them stick to the conventional code. For me, if I make my own laws I don't break them."
"And you're sure that you're on the road to true success?" she asked lightly.
"Now, you have heaven in the back of your mind."
"Not exactly," she laughed. "But I didn't expect you to understand."
"Then I won't disappoint you," he said cheerfully.
She came back to the concrete.
"I should like to know whether it is true that you own the courts of Yuba County and have the decisions of the judges written at your lawyer's offices in cases between you and the Consolidated."
"If I do," he answered easily, "I am doing just what the Consolidated would do in case they had been so fortunate as to have won the last election and seated their judicial candidates. One expects a friendly leaning from the men one put in office."
"Isn't the judiciary supposed to be the final, incorruptible bulwark of the nation?" she pretended to want to know.
"I believe it is supposed to be."
"Isn't it rather—loading the dice, to interfere with the courts?"
"I find the dice already loaded. I merely substitute others of my own."
"You don't seem a bit ashamed of yourself."
"I'm ashamed of the Consolidated"—he smiled.
"That's a comfortable position to be able to take." She fixed him for a moment with her charming frown of interrogation. "You won't mind my asking these questions? I'm trying to decide whether you are too much of a pirate for me. Perhaps when I've made up my mind you won't want me," she added.
"Oh, I'll want you!" Then coolly: "Shall we wait till you make up your mind before announcing the engagement?"
"Don't be too sure," she flashed at him.
"I'm horribly unsure."
"Of course, you're laughing at me, just as you would"—she tilted a sudden sideways glance at him—"if I asked you WHY you wanted to marry me."
"Oh, if you take me that way——"
She interrupted airily. "I'm trying to make up my mind whether to take you at all."
"You certainly have a direct way of getting at things."
He studied appreciatively her piquant, tilted face; the long, graceful lines of her slender, perfect figure. "I take it you don't want the sentimental reason for my wishing to marry you, though I find that amply justified. But if you want another, you must still look to yourself for it. My business leads me to appreciate values correctly. When I desire you to sit at the head of my table, to order my house, my judgment justifies itself. I have a fancy always for the best. When I can't gratify it I do without."
"Thank you." She made him a gay little mock curtsy "I had heard you were no carpet-knight, Mr. Ridgway. But rumor is a lying jade, for I am being told—am I not?—that in case I don't take pity on you, the lone future of a celibate stretches drear before you."
Having come to the end of that passage, she tried another. "A young man told me yesterday you were a fighter. He said he guessed you would stand the acid. What did he mean?"
Ridgway was an egoist from head to heel. He could voice his own praises by the hour when necessary, but now he side-stepped her little trap to make him praise himself at second-hand.
"Better ask him."
"ARE you a fighter, then?"
Had he known her and her whimsies less well, he might have taken her audacity for innocence.
"One couldn't lie down, you know."
"Of course, you always fight fair," she mocked.
"When a fellow's attacked by a gang of thugs he doesn't pray for boxing-gloves. He lets fly with a coupling-pin if that's what comes handy."
Her eyes, glinting sparks of mischief, marveled at him with mock reverence, but she knew in her heart that her mockery was a fraud. She did admire him; admired him even while she disapproved the magnificent lawlessness of him.
For Waring Ridgway looked every inch the indomitable fighter he was. He stood six feet to the line, straight and strong, carrying just sufficient bulk to temper his restless energy without impairing its power. Nor did the face offer any shock of disappointment to the promise given by the splendid figure. Salient-jawed and forceful, set with cool, flinty, blue-gray eyes, no place for weakness could be found there. One might have read a moral callousness, a colorblindness in points of rectitude, but when the last word had been said, its masterful capability, remained the outstanding impression.
"Am I out of the witness-box?" he presently asked, still leaning against the mantel from which he had been watching her impersonally as an intellectual entertainment.
"I think so."
"And the verdict?"
"You know what it ought to be," she accused.
"Fortunately, kisses go by favor, not by, merit."
"You don't even make a pretense of deserving."
"Give me credit for being an honest rogue, at least."
"But a rogue?" she insisted lightly.
"Oh, a question of definitions. I could make a very good case for myself as an honest man."
"If you thought it worth while?"
"If I didn't happen to want to be square with you"—he smiled.
"You're so fond of me, I suppose, that you couldn't bear to have me think too well of you."
"You know how fond of you I am."
"Yes, it is a pity about you," she scoffed.
"Believe me, yes," he replied cheerfully.
She drummed with her pink finger-tips on her chin, studying him meditatively. To do him justice, she had to admit that he did not even pretend much. He wanted her because she was a step up in the social ladder, and, in his opinion, the most attractive girl he knew. That he was not in love with her relieved the situation, as Miss Balfour admitted to herself in impersonal moods. But there were times when she could have wished he were. She felt it to be really due her attractions that his pulses should quicken for her, and in the interests of experience she would have liked to see how he would make love if he really meant it from the heart and not the will.
"It's really an awful bother," she sighed.
"Referring to the little problem of your future?"
"Can't make up your mind whether I come in?"
"No." She looked up brightly, with an effect of impulsiveness. "I don't suppose you want to give me another week?"
"A reprieve! But why? You're going to marry me."
"I suppose so." She laughed. "I wish I could have my cake, and eat it, too."
"It would be a moral iniquity to encourage such a system of ethics."
"So you won't give me a week?" she sighed. "All sorts of things might have happened in that week. I shall always believe that the fairy prince would have come for me."
"Believe that he HAS come," he claimed.
"Oh, I didn't mean a prince of pirates, though there is a triumph in having tamed a pirate chief to prosaic matrimony. In one way it will be a pity, too. You won't be half so picturesque. You remember how Stevenson puts it: 'that marriage takes from a man the capacity for great things, whether good or bad.'"
"I can stand a good deal of taming."
"Domesticating a pirate ought to be an interesting process," she conceded, her rare smile flashing. "It should prove a cure for ENNUI, but then I'm never a victim of that malady."
"Am I being told that I am to be the happiest pirate alive?"
"I expect you are."
His big hand gripped hers till it tingled. She caught his eye on a roving quest to the door.
"We don't have to do that," she announced hurriedly, with an embarrassed flush.
"I don't do it because I have to," he retorted, kissing her on the lips.
She fell back, protesting. "Under the circumstances—"
The butler, with a card on a tray, interrupted silently. She glanced at the card, devoutly grateful his impassive majesty's entrance had not been a moment earlier.
"Show him in here."
"The fairy prince, five minutes too late?" asked Ridgway, when the man had gone.
For answer she handed him the card, yet he thought the pink that flushed her cheek was something more pronounced than usual. But he was willing to admit there might be a choice of reasons for that.
"Lyndon Hobart" was the name he read.
"I think the Consolidated is going to have its innings. I should like to stay, of course, but I fear I must plead a subsequent engagement and leave the field to the enemy."
Pronouncing "Mr. Hobart" without emphasis, the butler vanished. The newcomer came forward with the quiet assurance of the born aristocrat. He was a slender, well-knit man, dressed fastidiously, with clear-cut, classical features; cool, keen eyes, and a gentle, you-be-damned manner to his inferiors. Beside him Ridgway bulked too large, too florid. His ease seemed a little obvious, his prosperity overemphasized. Even his voice, strong and reliant, lacked the tone of gentle blood that Hobart had inherited with his nice taste.
When Miss Balfour said: "I think you know each other," the manager of the Consolidated bowed with stiff formality, but his rival laughed genially and said: "Oh, yes, I know Mr. Hobart." The geniality was genuine enough, but through it ran a note of contempt. Hobart read in it a veiled taunt. To him it seemed to say:
"Yes, I have met him, and beaten him at every turn of the road, though he has been backed by a power with resources a hundred times as great as mine."
In his parting excuses to Miss Balfour, Ridgway's audacity crystallized in words that Hobart could only regard as a shameless challenge. "I regret that an appointment with Judge Purcell necessitates my leaving such good company," he said urbanely.
Purcell was the judge before whom was pending a suit between the Consolidated and the Mesa Ore-producing Company, to determine the ownership of the Never Say Die Mine; and it was current report that Ridgway owned him as absolutely as he did the automobile waiting for him now at the door.
If Ridgway expected his opponent to pay his flippant gibe the honor of repartee, he was disappointed. To be sure, Hobart, admirably erect in his slender grace, was moved to a slight, disdainful smile, but it evidenced scarcely the appreciation that anybody less impervious to criticism than Ridgway would have cared to see.
CHAPTER 2. THE FREEBOOTER
When next Virginia Balfour saw Waring Ridgway she was driving her trap down one of the hit-or-miss streets of Mesa, where derricks, shaft-houses, and gray slag-dumps shoulder ornate mansions conglomerate of many unharmonious details of architecture. To Miss Balfour these composites and their owners would have been joys unalloyed except for the microbe of society ambition that was infecting the latter, and transforming them from simple, robust, self-reliant Westerners into a class of servile, nondescript newly rich, that resembled their unfettered selves as much as tame bears do the grizzlies of their own Rockies. As she had once complained smilingly to Hobart, she had not come to the West to study ragged edges of the social fringe. She might have done that in New York.
Virginia was still a block or two from the court-house on the hill, when it emptied into the street a concourse of excited men. That this was an occasion of some sort it was easy to guess, and of what sort she began to have an inkling, when Ridgway came out, the center of a circle of congratulating admirers. She was obliged to admit that he accepted their applause without in the least losing his head. Indeed, he took it as imperturbably as did Hobart, against whom a wave of the enthusiasm seemed to be directed in the form of a jeer, when he passed down the steps with Mott, one of the Consolidated lawyers. Miss Balfour timed her approach to meet Hobart at a right angle.
"What is it all about?" she asked, after he had reached her side.
"Judge Purcell has just decided the Never Say Die case in favor of Mr. Ridgway and against the Consolidated."
"Is that a great victory for him?"
"Yes, it's a victory, though, of course, we appeal," admitted Hobart. "But we can't say we didn't expect it," he added cheerfully.
"Mayn't I give you a lift if you are going down-town?" she said quickly, for Ridgway, having detached himself from the group, was working toward her, and she felt an instinctive sympathy for the man who had lost. Furthermore, she had something she wanted to tell him before he heard it on the tongue of rumor.
"Since you are so kind;" and he climbed to the place beside her.
"Congratulate me, Miss Balfour," demanded Ridgway, as he shook hands with her, nodding coolly at her companion. "I'm a million dollars richer than I was an hour ago. I have met the enemy and he is mine."
Virginia, resenting the bad taste of his jeer at the man who sat beside her, misunderstood him promptly. "Did you say you had met the enemy and won his mine?"
He laughed. "You're a good one!"
"Thank you very much for this unsolicited testimonial," she said gravely. "In the meantime, to avoid a congestion of traffic, we'll be moving, if you will kindly give me back my front left wheel."
He did not lift his foot from the spoke on which it rested. "My congratulations," he reminded her.
"I wish you all the joy in your victory that you deserve, and I hope the supreme court will reaffirm the decision of Judge Purcell, if it is a just one," was the form in which she acceded to his demand.
She flicked her whip, and Ridgway fell back, laughing. "You've been subsidized by the Consolidated," he shouted after her.
Hobart watched silently the businesslike directness with which the girl handled the ribbons. She looked every inch the thoroughbred in her well-made covert coat and dainty driving gauntlets. The grace of the alert, slender figure, the perfect poise of the beautiful little tawny head, proclaimed her distinction no less certainly than the fine modeling of the mobile face. It was a distinction that stirred the pulse of his emotion and disarmed his keen, critical sense. Ridgway could study her with an amused, detached interest, but Hobart's admiration had traveled past that point. He found it as impossible to define her charm as to evade it. Her inheritance of blood and her environment should have made her a finished product of civilization, but her salty breeziness, her nerve, vivid as a flame at times, disturbed delightfully the poise that held her when in repose.
When Virginia spoke, it was to ask abruptly: "Is it really his mine?"
"Judge Purcell says so."
"But do YOU think so—down in the bottom of your heart?"
"Wouldn't I naturally be prejudiced?"
"I suppose you would. Everybody in Mesa seems to have taken sides either with Mr. Ridgway or the Consolidated. Still, you have an option. Is he what his friends proclaim him—the generous-hearted independent fighting against trust domination? Or is he merely an audacious ore-thief, as his enemies say? The truth must be somewhere."
"It seems to lie mostly in point of view here the angle of observation being determined by interest," he answered.
"And from your angle of observation?"
"He is the most unusual man I ever saw, the most resourceful and the most competent. He never knows when he is beaten. I suppose that's the reason he never is beaten finally. We have driven him to the wall a score of times. My experience with him is that he's most dangerous when one thinks he must be about hammered out. He always hits back then in the most daring and unexpected way."
"With a coupling-pin," she suggested with a little reminiscent laugh.
"Metaphorically speaking. He reaches for the first effective weapon to his hand."
"You haven't quite answered my question yet," she reminded him. "Is he what his friends or what his enemies think him?"
"If you ask me I can only say that I'm one of his enemies."
"But a fair-minded man," she replied quickly.
"Thank you. Then I'll say that perhaps he is neither just what his friends or his foes think him. One must make allowances for his training and temperament, and for that quality of bigness in him. 'Mediocre men go soberly on the highroads, but saints and scoundrels meet in the jails,'" he smilingly quoted.
"He would make a queer sort of saint," she laughed.
"A typical twentieth century one of a money-mad age."
She liked it in him that he would not use the opportunity she had made to sneer at his adversary, none the less because she knew that Ridgway might not have been so scrupulous in his place. That Lyndon Hobart's fastidious instincts for fair play had stood in the way of his success in the fight to down Ridgway she had repeatedly heard. Of late, rumors had persisted in reporting dissatisfaction with his management of the Consolidated at the great financial center on Broadway which controlled the big copper company. Simon Harley, the dominating factor in the octopus whose tentacles reached out in every direction to monopolize the avenues of wealth, demanded of his subordinates results. Methods were no concern of his, and failure could not be explained to him. He wanted Ridgway crushed, and the pulse of the copper production regulated lay the Consolidated. Instead, he had seen Ridgway rise steadily to power and wealth despite his efforts to wipe him off the slate. Hobart was perfectly aware that his head was likely to fall when Harley heard of Purcell's decision in regard to the Never Say Die.
"He certainly is an amazing man," Virginia mused, her fiancee in mind. "It would be interesting to discover what he can't do—along utilitarian lines, I mean. Is he as good a miner underground as he is in the courts?" she flung out.
"He is the shrewdest investor I know. Time and again he has leased or bought apparently worthless claims, and made them pay inside of a few weeks. Take the Taurus as a case in point. He struck rich ore in a fortnight. Other men had done development work for years and found nothing."
"I'm naturally interested in knowing all about him, because I have just become engaged to him," explained Miss Virginia, as calmly as if her pulse were not fluttering a hundred to the minute.
Virginia was essentially a sportsman. She did not flinch from the guns when the firing was heavy. It had been remarked of her even as a child that she liked to get unpleasant things over with as soon as possible, rather than postpone them. Once, aetat eight, she had marched in to her mother like a stoic and announced: "I've come to be whipped, momsie, 'cause I broke that horrid little Nellie Vaile's doll. I did it on purpose, 'cause I was mad at her. I'm glad I broke it, so there!"
Hobart paled slightly beneath his outdoors Western tan, but his eyes met hers very steadily and fairly. "I wish you happiness, Miss Balfour, from the bottom of my heart."
She nodded a brisk "Thank you," and directed her attention again to the horses.
"Take him by and large, Mr. Ridgway is the most capable, energetic, and far-sighted business man I have ever known. He has a bigger grasp of things than almost any financier in the country. I think you'll find he will go far," he said, choosing his words with care to say as much for Waring Ridgway as he honestly could.
"I have always thought so," agreed Virginia.
She had reason for thinking so in that young man's remarkable career. When Waring Ridgway had first come to Mesa he had been a draftsman for the Consolidated at five dollars a day. He was just out of Cornell, and his assets consisted mainly of a supreme confidence in himself and an imposing presence. He was a born leader, and he flung himself into the raw, turbid life of the mining town with a readiness that had not a little to do with his subsequent success.
That success began to take tangible form almost from the first. A small, independent smelter that had for long been working at a loss was about to fall into the hands of the Consolidated when Ridgway bought it on promises to pay, made good by raising money on a flying trip he took to the East. His father died about this time and left him fifty thousand dollars, with which he bought the Taurus, a mine in which several adventurous spirits had dropped small fortunes. He acquired other properties; a lease here, an interest there. It began to be observed that he bought always with judgment. He seemed to have the touch of Midas. Where other men had lost money he made it.
When the officers of the Consolidated woke up to the menace of his presence, one of their lawyers called on him. The agent of the Consolidated smiled at his luxurious offices, which looked more like a woman's boudoir than the business place of a Western miner. But that was merely part of Ridgway's vanity, and did not in the least interfere with his predatory instincts. Many people who walked into that parlor to do business played fly to his spider.
The lawyer had been ready to patronize the upstart who had ventured so boldly into the territory of the great trust, but one glance at the clear-cut resolute face of the young man changed his mind.
"I've come to make you an offer for your smelter, Mr. Ridgway," he began. "We'll take it off your hands at the price it cost you."
"Not for sale, Mr. Bartel."
"Very well. We'll give you ten thousand more than you paid for it."
"You misunderstand me. It is not for sale."
"Oh, come! You bought it to sell to us. What can you do with it?"
"Run it," suggested Ridgway.
"You forget that I own a few properties, and have leases on others. When the Taurus begins producing, I'll have enough to keep the smelter going."
"When the Taurus begins producing?"—Bartel smiled skeptically. "Didn't Johnson and Leroy drop fortunes on that expectation?"
"I'll bet five thousand dollars we make a strike within two weeks."
"Chimerical!" pronounced the graybeard as he rose to go, with an air of finality. "Better sell the smelter while you have the chance."
"Think not," disagreed Ridgway.
At the door the lawyer turned. "Oh, there's another matter! It had slipped my mind." He spoke with rather elaborate carelessness. "It seems that there is a little triangle—about ten and four feet across—wedged in between the Mary K, the Diamond King, and the Marcus Daly. For some reason we accidentally omitted to file on it. Our chief engineer finds that you have taken it up, Mr. Ridgway. It is really of no value, but it is in the heart of our properties, and so it ought to belong to us. Of course, it is of no use to you. There isn't any possible room to sink a shaft. We'll take it from you if you like, and even pay you a nominal price. For what will you sell?"
Ridgway lit a cigar before he answered: "One million dollars."
"What?" screamed Bartel.
"Not a cent less. I call it the Trust Buster. Before I'm through, you'll find it is worth that to me."
The lawyer reported him demented to the Consolidated officials, who declared war on him from that day.
They found the young adventurer more than prepared for them. If he had a Napoleonic sense of big vital factors, he had no less a genius for detail. He had already picked up an intimate knowledge of the hundreds of veins and crossveins that traverse the Mesa copper-fields, and he had delved patiently into the tangled history of the litigation that the defective mining laws in pioneer days had made possible. When the Consolidated attempted to harass him by legal process, he countered by instituting a score of suits against the company within the week. These had to do with wills, insanity cases, extra lateral rights, mine titles, and land and water rights. Wherever Ridgway saw room for an entering wedge to dispute the title of the Consolidated, he drove a new suit home. To say the least, the trust found it annoying to be enjoined from working its mines, to be cited for contempt before judges employed in the interests of its opponent, to be served with restraining orders when clearly within its rights. But when these adverse legal decisions began to affect vital issues, the Consolidated looked for reasons why Ridgway should control the courts. It found them in politics.
For Ridgway was already dominating the politics of Yuba County, displaying an amazing acumen and a surprising ability as a stumpspeaker. He posed as a friend of the people, an enemy of the trust. He declared an eight-hour day for his own miners, and called upon the Consolidated to do the same. Hobart refused, acting on orders from Broadway, and fifteen thousand Consolidated miners went to the polls and reelected Ridgway's corrupt judges, in spite of the fight the Consolidated was making against them.
Meanwhile, Ridgway's colossal audacity made the Consolidated's copper pay for the litigation with which he was harassing it. In following his ore-veins, or what he claimed to be his veins, he crossed boldly into the territory of the enemy. By the law of extra lateral rights, a man is entitled to mine within the lines of other property than his own, provided he is following the dip of a vein which has its apex in his claim. Ridgway's experts were prepared to swear that all the best veins in the field apexed in his property. Pending decisions of the courts, they assumed it, tunneling through granite till they tapped the veins of the Consolidated mines, meanwhile enjoining that company from working the very ore of which Ridgway was robbing it.
Many times the great trust back of the Consolidated had him close to ruin, but Ridgway's alert brain and supreme audacity carried him through. From their mines or from his own he always succeeded in extracting enough ore to meet his obligations when they fell due. His powerful enemy, as Hobart had told Miss Balfour, found him most dangerous when it seemed to have him with his back to the wall. Then unexpectedly would fall some crushing blow that put the financial kings of Broadway on the defensive long enough for him to slip out of the corner into which they had driven him. Greatly daring, he had the successful cavalryman's instinct of risking much to gain much. A gambler, his enemies characterized him fitly enough. But it was also true, as Mesa phrased it, that he gambled "with the lid off," playing for large stakes, neither asking nor giving quarter.
At the end of five years of desperate fighting, the freebooter was more strongly entrenched than he had been at any previous time. The railroads, pledged to give rebates to the Consolidated, had been forced by Ridgway, under menace of adverse legislation from the men he controlled at the State-house, to give him secretly a still better rate than the trust. He owned the county courts, he was supported by the people, and had become a political dictator, and the financial outlook for him grew brighter every day.
Such were the conditions when Judge Purcell handed down his Never Say Die decision. Within an hour Hobart was reading a telegram in cipher from the Broadway headquarters. It announced the immediate departure for Mesa of the great leader of the octopus. Simon Harley, the Napoleon of finance, was coming out to attend personally to the destruction of the buccaneer who had dared to fire on the trust flag.
Before night some one of his corps of spies in the employ of the enemy carried the news to Waring Ridgway. He smiled grimly, his bluegray eyes hardening to the temper of steel. Here at last was a foeman worthy of his metal; one as lawless, unscrupulous, daring, and far-seeing as himself, with a hundred times his resources.
CHAPTER 3. ONE TO ONE
The solitary rider stood for a moment in silhouette against the somber sky-line, his keen eyes searching the lowering clouds.
"Getting its back up for a blizzard," he muttered to himself, as he touched his pony with the spur.
Dark, heavy billows banked in the west, piling over each other as they drove forward. Already the advance-guard had swept the sunlight from the earth, except for a flutter of it that still protested near the horizon. Scattering snowflakes were flying, and even in a few minutes the temperature had fallen many degrees.
The rider knew the signs of old. He recognized the sudden stealthy approach that transformed a sun-drenched, friendly plain into an unknown arctic waste. Not for nothing had he been last year one of a search-party to find the bodies of three miners frozen to death not fifty yards from their own cabin. He understood perfectly what it meant to be caught away from shelter when the driven white pall wiped out distance and direction; made long familiar landmarks strange, and numbed the will to a helpless surrender. The knowledge of it was spur enough to make him ride fast while he still retained the sense of direction.
But silently, steadily, the storm increased, and he was forced to slacken his pace. As the blinding snow grew thick, the sound of the wind deadened, unable to penetrate the dense white wall through which he forced his way. The world narrowed to a space whose boundaries he could touch with his extended hands. In this white mystery that wrapped him, nothing was left but stinging snow, bitter cold, and the silence of the dead.
So he thought one moment, and the next was almost flung by his swerving horse into a vehicle that blocked the road. Its blurred outlines presently resolved themselves into an automobile, crouched in the bottom of which was an inert huddle of humanity.
He shouted, forgetting that no voice could carry through the muffled scream of the storm. When he got no answer, he guided his horse close to the machine and reached down to snatch away the rug already heavy with snow. To his surprise, it was a girl's despairing face that looked up at him. She tried to rise, but fell back, her muscles too numb to serve.
"Don't leave me," she implored, stretching her, arms toward him.
He reached out and lifted her to his horse. "Are you alone?"
"Yes. He went for help when the machine broke down—before the storm," she sobbed. He had to put his ear to her mouth to catch the words.
"Come, keep up your heart." There was that in his voice pealed like a trumpet-call to her courage.
"I'm freezing to death," she moaned.
She was exhausted and benumbed, her lips blue, her flesh gray. It was plain to him that she had reached the limit of endurance, that she was ready to sink into the last torpor. He ripped open his overcoat and shook the snow from it, then gathered her close so that she might get the warmth of his body. The rugs from the automobile he wrapped round them both.
"Courage!" he cried. "There's a miner's cabin near. Don't give up, child."
But his own courage was of the heart and will, not of the head. He had small hope of reaching the hut at the entrance of Dead Man's Gulch or, if he could struggle so far, of finding it in the white swirl that clutched at them. Near and far are words not coined for a blizzard. He might stagger past with safety only a dozen feet from him. He might lie down and die at the very threshold of the door. Or he might wander in an opposite direction and miss the cabin by a mile.
Yet it was not in the man to give up. He must stagger on till he could no longer stand. He must fight so long as life was in him. He must crawl forward, though his forlorn hope had vanished. And he did. When the worn-out horse slipped down and could not be coaxed to its feet again, he picked up the bundle of rugs and plowed forward blindly, soul and body racked, but teeth still set fast with the primal instinct never to give up. The intense cold of the air, thick with gray sifted ice, searched the warmth from his body and sapped his vitality. His numbed legs doubled under him like springs. He was down and up again a dozen times, but always the call of life drove him on, dragging his helpless burden with him.
That he did find the safety of the cabin in the end was due to no wisdom on his part. He had followed unconsciously the dip of the ground that led him into the little draw where it had been built, and by sheer luck stumbled against it. His strength was gone, but the door gave to his weight, and he buckled across the threshold like a man helpless with drink. He dropped to the floor, ready to sink into a stupor, but he shook sleep from him and dragged himself to his feet. Presently his numb fingers found a match, a newspaper, and some wood. As soon as he had control over his hands, he fell to chafing hers. He slipped off her dainty shoes, pathetically inadequate for such an experience, and rubbed her feet back to feeling. She had been torpid, but when the blood began to circulate, she cried out in agony at the pain.
Every inch of her bore the hall-mark of wealth. The ermine-lined motoring-cloak, the broadcloth cut on simple lines of elegance, the quality of her lingerie and of the hosiery which incased the wonderfully small feet, all told of a padded existence from which the cares of life had been excluded. The satin flesh he massaged, to renew the flow of the dammed blood, was soft and tender like a babe's. Quite surely she was an exotic, the last woman in the world fitted for the hardships of this frontier country. She had none of the deep-breasted vitality of those of her sex who have fought with grim nature and won. His experience told him that a very little longer in the storm would have snuffed out the wick of her life.
But he knew, too, that the danger was past. Faint tints of pink were beginning to warm the cheeks that had been so deathly pallid. Already crimson lips were offering a vivid contrast to the still, almost colorless face.
For she was biting the little lips to try and keep back the cries of pain that returning life wrung from her. Big tears coursed down her cheeks, and broken sobs caught her breath. She was helpless as an infant before the searching pain that wracked her.
"I can't stand it—I can't stand it," she moaned, and in her distress stretched out her little hand for relief as a baby might to its mother.
The childlike appeal of the flinching violet eyes in the tortured face moved him strangely. He was accounted a hard man, not without reason. His eyes were those of a gambler, cold and vigilant. It was said that he could follow an undeviating course without relenting at the ruin and misery wrought upon others by his operations. But the helpless loveliness of this exquisitely dainty child-woman, the sense of intimacy bred of a common peril endured, of the strangeness of their environment and of her utter dependence upon him, carried the man out of himself and away from conventions.
He stooped and gathered her into his arms, walking the floor with her and cheering her as if she had indeed been the child they both for the moment conceived her.
"You don't know how it hurts," she pleaded between sobs, looking up into the strong face so close to hers.
"I know it must, dear. But soon it will be better. Every twinge is one less, and shows that you are getting well. Be brave for just a few minutes more now."
She smiled wanly through her tears. "But I'm not brave. I'm a little coward—and it does pain so."
"I know—I know. It is dreadful. But just a few minutes now."
"You're good to me," she said presently, simply as a little girl might have said it.
To neither of them did it seem strange that she should be there in his arms, her fair head against his shoulder, nor that she should cling convulsively to him when the fierce pain tingled unbearably. She had reached out for the nearest help, and he gave of his strength and courage abundantly.
Presently the prickling of the flowing blood grew less sharp. She began to grow drowsy with warmth after the fatigue and pain. The big eyes shut, fluttered open, smiled at him, and again closed. She had fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion.
He looked down with an odd queer feeling at the small aristocratic face relaxed upon his ann. The long lashes had drooped to the cheeks and shuttered the eyes that had met his with such confident appeal, but they did not hide the dark rings underneath, born of the hardships she had endured. As he walked the floor with her, he lived once more the terrible struggle through which they had passed. He saw Death stretching out icy hands for her, and as his arms unconsciously tightened about the soft rounded body, his square jaw set and the fighting spark leaped to his eyes.
"No, by Heaven," he gave back aloud his defiance.
Troubled dreams pursued her in her sleep. She clung close to him, her arm creeping round his neck for safety. He was a man not given to fine scruples, but all the best in him responded to her unconscious trust.
It was so she found herself when she awakened, stiff from her cramped position. She slipped at once to the floor and sat there drying her lace skirts, the sweet piquancy of her childish face set out by the leaping fire-glow that lit and shadowed her delicate coloring. Outside in the gray darkness raged the death from which he had snatched her by a miracle. Beyond—a million miles away—the world whose claim had loosened on them was going through its routine of lies and love, of hypocrisies and heroisms. But here were just they two, flung back to the primordial type by the fierce battle for existence that had encompassed them—Adam and Eve in the garden, one to one, all else forgot, all other ties and obligations for the moment obliterated. Had they not struggled, heart beating against heart, with the breath of death icing them, and come out alive? Was their world not contracted to a space ten feet by twelve, shut in from every other planet by an illimitable stretch of storm?
"Where should I have been if you had not found me?" she murmured, her haunting eyes fixed on the flames.
"But I should have found you—no matter where you had been, I should have found you."
The words seemed to leap from him of themselves. He was sure he had not meant to speak them, to voice so soon the claim that seemed to him so natural and reasonable.
She considered his words and found delight in acquiescing at once. The unconscious demand for life, for love, of her starved soul had never been gratified. But he had come to her through that fearful valley of death, because he must, because it had always been meant he should.
Her lustrous eyes, big with faith, looked up and met his.
The far, wise voices of the world were storm-deadened. They cried no warning to these drifting hearts. How should they know in that moment when their souls reached toward each other that the wisdom of the ages had decreed their yearning futile?
CHAPTER 4. FORT SALVATION
She must have fallen asleep there, for when she opened her eyes it was day. Underneath her was a lot of bedding he had found in the cabin, and tucked about her were the automobile rugs. For a moment her brain, still sodden with sleep, struggled helplessly with her surroundings. She looked at the smoky rafters without understanding, and her eyes searched the cabin wonderingly for her maid. When she remembered, her first thought was to look for the man. That he had gone, she saw with instinctive terror.
But not without leaving a message. She found his penciled note, weighted for security by a dollar, at the edge of the hearth.
"Gone on a foraging expedition. Back in an hour, Little Partner," was all it said. The other man also had promised to be back in an hour, and he had not come, but the strong chirography of the note, recalling the resolute strength of this man's face, brought content to her eyes. He had said he would come back. She rested secure in that pledge.
She went to the window and looked out over the great white wastes that rose tier on tier to the dull sky-line. She shuddered at the arctic desolation of the vast snow-fields. The mountains were sheeted with silence and purity. It seemed to the untaught child-woman that she was face to face with the Almighty.
Once during the night she had partially awakened to hear the roaring wind as it buffeted snow-clouds across the range. It had come tearing along the divide with the black storm in its vanguard, and she had heard fearfully the shrieks and screams of the battle as it raged up and down the gulches and sifted into them the deep drifts.
Half-asleep as she was, she had been afraid and had cried out with terror at this strange wakening; and he had been beside her in an instant.
"It's all right, partner. There's nothing to be afraid of," he had said cheerfully, taking her little hand in his big warm one.
Her fears had slipped away at once. Nestling down into her rug, she had smiled sleepily at him and fallen asleep with her cheek on her hand, her other hand still in his.
While she had been asleep the snow-tides had filled the gulch, had risen level with the top of the lower pane of the window. Nothing broke the smoothness of its flow save the one track he had made in breaking a way out. That he should have tried to find his way through such an untracked desolation amazed her. He could never do it. No puny human atom could fight successfully against the barriers nature had dropped so sullenly to fence them. They were set off from the world by a quarantine of God. There was something awful to her in the knowledge. It emphasized their impotence. Yet, this man had set himself to fight the inevitable.
With a little shudder she turned from the window to the cheerless room. The floor was dirty; unwashed dishes were piled upon the table. Here and there were scattered muddy boots and overalls, just as their owner, the prospector, had left them before he had gone to the nearest town to restock his exhausted supply of provisions. Disorder and dirt filled the rough cabin, or so it seemed to her fastidious eye.
The inspiration of the housewife seized her. She would surprise him on his return by opening the door to him upon a house swept and garnished. She would show him that she could be of some use even in such a primitive topsy-turvy world as this into which Fate had thrust her willy-nilly.
First, she carried red live coals on a shovel from the fireplace to the cook-stove, and piled kindling upon them till it lighted. It was a new experience to her. She knew nothing of housework; had never lit a fire in her life, except once when she had been one of a camping party. The smoke choked her before she had the lids back in their places, but despite her awkwardness, the girl went about her unaccustomed tasks with a light heart. It was for her new-found hero that she played at housekeeping. For his commendation she filled the tea-kettle, enveloped herself in a cloud of dust as she wielded the stub of a broom she discovered, and washed the greasy dishes after the water was hot. A childish pleasure suffused her. All her life her least whims had been ministered to; she was reveling in a first attempt at service. As she moved to and fro with an improvised dust-rag, sunshine filled her being. From her lips the joy notes fell in song, shaken from her throat for sheer happiness. This surely was life, that life from which she had so carefully been hedged all the years of her young existence.
As he came down the trail he had broken, with a pack on his back, the man heard her birdlike carol in the clear frosty air. He emptied his chest in a deep shout, and she was instantly at the window, waving him a welcome with her dust-rag.
"I thought you were never coming," she cried from the open door as he came up the path.
Her eyes were starry in their eagerness. Every sensitive feature was alert with interest, so that the man thought he had never seen so mobile and attractive a face.
"Did it seem long?" he asked.
"Oh, weeks and weeks! You must be frozen to an icicle. Come in and get warm."
"I'm as warm as toast," he assured her.
He was glowing with exercise and the sting of the cold, for he had tramped two miles through drifts from three to five feet deep, battling with them every step of the way, and carrying with him on the return trip a box of provisions.
"With all that snow on you and the pack on your back, it's like Santa Claus," she cried, clapping her hands.
"Before we're through with the adventure we may think that box a sure enough gift from Santa," he replied.
After he had put it down, he took off his overcoat on the threshold and shook the snow from it. Then, with much feet stamping and scattering of snow, he came in. She fluttered about him, dragging a chair up to the fire for him, and taking his hat and gloves. It amused and pleased him that she should be so solicitous, and he surrendered himself to her ministrations.
His quick eye noticed the swept floor and the evanishment of disorder. "Hello! What's this clean through a fall house-cleaning? I'm not the only member of the firm that has been working. Dishes washed, floor swept, bed made, kitchen fire lit. You've certainly been going some, unless the fairies helped you. Aren't you afraid of blistering these little hands?" he asked gaily, taking one of them in his and touching the soft palm gently with the tip of his finger.
"I should preserve those blisters in alcohol to show that I've really been of some use," she answered, happy in his approval.
"Sho! People are made for different uses. Some are fit only to shovel and dig. Others are here simply to decorate the world. Hard world. Hard work is for those who can't give society anything else, but beauty is its own excuse for being," he told her breezily.
"Now that's the first compliment you have given me," she pouted prettily. "I can get them in plenty back in the drawing-rooms where I am supposed to belong. We're to be real comrades here, and compliments are barred."
"I wasn't complimenting you," he maintained. "I was merely stating a principle of art."
"Then you mustn't make your principles of art personal, sir. But since you have, I'm going to refute the application of your principle and show how useful I've been. Now, sir, do you know what provisions we have outside of those you have just brought?"
He knew exactly, since he had investigated during the night. That they might possibly have to endure a siege of some weeks, he was quite well aware, and his first thought, after she had gone to sleep before the fire, had been to make inventory of such provisions as the prospector had left in his cabin. A knuckle of ham, part of a sack of flour, some navy beans, and some tea siftings at the bottom of a tin can; these constituted the contents of the larder which the miner had gone to replenish. But though the man knew he assumed ignorance, for he saw that she was bubbling over with the desire to show her forethought.
"Tell me," he begged of her, and after she had done so, he marveled aloud over her wisdom in thinking of it.
"Now tell me about your trip," she commanded, setting herself tailor fashion on the rug to listen.
"There isn't much to tell," he smiled "I should like to make an adventure of it, but I can't. I just went and came back."
"Oh, you just went and came back, did you?" she scoffed. "That won't do at all. I want to know all about it. Did you find the machine all right?"
"I found it where we left it, buried in four feet of snow. You needn't be afraid that anybody will run away with it for a day or two. The pantry was cached pretty deep itself, but I dug it out."
Her shy glance admired the sturdy lines of his powerful frame. "I am afraid it must have been a terrible task to get there through the blizzard."
"Oh, the blizzard is past. You never saw a finer, more bracing morning. It's a day for the gods," he laughed boyishly.
She could have conceived no Olympian more heroic than he, and certainly none with so compelling a vitality. "Such a warm, kind light in them!" she thought of the eyes others had found hard and calculating.
It was lucky that the lunch the automobilists had brought from Avalanche was ample and as yet untouched. The hotel waiter, who had attended to the packing of it, had fortunately been used to reckon with outdoor Montana appetites instead of cloyed New York ones. They unpacked the little hamper with much gaiety. Everything was frozen solid, and the wine had cracked its bottle.
"Shipped right through on our private refrigerator-car. That cold-storage chicken looks the finest that ever happened. What's this rolled up in tissue-paper? Deviled eggs and ham sandwiches AND caviar, not to speak of claret frappe. I'm certainly grateful to the gentleman finished in ebony who helped to provision us for this siege. He'll never know what a tip he missed by not being here to collect."
"Here's jelly, too, and cake," she said, exploring with him.
"Not to mention peaches and pears. Oh, this is luck of a special brand! I was expecting to put up at Starvation Camp. Now we may name it Point Plenty."
"Or Fort Salvation," she suggested shyly. "Because you brought me here to save my life."
She was such a child, in spite of her charming grown-up airs, that he played make-believe with a zest that surprised himself when he came to think of it. She elected him captain of Fort Salvation, with full power of life and death over the garrison, and he appointed her second in command. His first general order was to put the garrison on two meals a day.
She clapped her little hands, eyes sparkling with excitement. "Are we really snow-bound? Must we go on half-rations?"
"It is the part of wisdom, lieutenant," he answered, smiling at her enthusiasm. "We don't know how long this siege is going to last. If it should set in to snow, we may be here several days before the relief-party reaches us." But, though he spoke cheerfully, he was aware of sinister possibilities in the situation. "Several weeks" would have been nearer his real guess.
They ate breakfast at the shelf-table nailed in place underneath the western window. They made a picnic of it, and her spirits skipped upon the hilltops. For the first time she ate from tin plates, drank from a tin cup, and used a tin spoon the worse for rust. What mattered it to her that the teapot was grimy and the fryingpan black with soot! It was all part of the wonderful new vista that had suddenly opened before her gaze. She had awakened into life and already she was dimly realizing that many and varied experiences lay waiting for her in that untrodden path beyond her cloistered world.
A reconnaissance in the shed behind the house showed him no plethora of firewood. But here was ax, shovel, and saw, and he asked no more. First he shoveled out a path along the eaves of the house where she might walk in sentry fashion to take the deep breaths of clear sharp air he insisted upon. He made it wide enough so that her skirt would not sweep against the snow-bank, and trod down the trench till the footing was hard and solid. Then with ax and saw he climbed the hillside back of the house and set himself to get as much fuel as he could. The sky was still heavy with unshed snow, and he knew that with the coming of night the storm would be renewed.
Came noon, mid-afternoon, the early dusk of a mountain winter, and found him still hewing and sawing, still piling load after load in the shed. Now and again she came out and watched him, laughing at the figure he made as he would come plunging through the snow with his armful of fuel.
She did not know, as he did, the vital necessity of filling the lean-to before winter fell upon them in earnest and buried them deep with his frozen blanket, and she was a little piqued that he should spend the whole day away from her in such unsocial fashion.
"Let me help," she begged so often that he trod down a path, made boots for her out of torn gunny-sacks which he tied round her legs, and let her drag wood to the house on a pine branch which served for a sled. She wore her gauntlets to protect her tender hands, and thereafter was happy until, detecting signs of fatigue, he made her go into the house and rest.
As soon as she dared she was back again, making fun of him and the earnestness with which he worked.
"Robinson Crusoe" was one name she fastened upon him, and she was not satisfied till she had made him call her "Friday."
Twilight fell austere and sudden upon them with an immediate fall of temperature that found a thermometer in her blue face.
He recommended the house, but she was of a contrary mood.
"I don't want to," she announced debonairly.
In a stiff military attitude he gave raucous mandate from his throat.
"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant."
"I think I'm going to mutiny," she informed him, with chin saucily in air.
This would not do at all. The chill wind sweeping down the canon was searching her insufficient clothing already. He picked her up in his arms and ran with her toward the house, setting her down in the trench outside the door. She caught her startled breath and looked at him in shy, dubious amazement.
"Really you" she was beginning when he cut her short.
"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant," came briskly from lips that showed just a hint of a smile.
At once she clicked her heels together, saluted, and wheeled into the cabin.
From the grimy window she watched his broad-shouldered vigor, waving her hand whenever his face was turned her way. He worked like a Titan, reveling in the joy of physical labor, but it was long past dark before he finished and came striding to the hut.
They made a delightful evening of it, living in the land of Never Was. For one source of her charm lay in the gay, childlike whimsicality o her imagination. She believed in fairies and heroes with all her heart, which with her was an organ not located in her brain. The delicious gurgle of gaiety in her laugh was a new find to him in feminine attractions.
There had been many who thought the career of this pirate of industry beggared fiction, though, few had found his flinty personality a radiaton of romance. But this convent-nurtured child had made a discovery in men, one out of the rut of the tailor-made, convention-bound society youths to whom her experience for the most part had been limited. She delighted in his masterful strength, in the confidence of his careless dominance. She liked to see that look of power in his gray-blue eyes softened to the droll, half-tender, expression with which he played the game of make-believe. There were no to-morrows; to-day marked the limit of time for them. By tacit consent they lived only in the present, shutting out deliberately from their knowledge of each other, that past which was not common to both. Even their names were unknown to each other, and both of them were glad that it was so.
The long winter evening had fallen early, and they dined by candle-light, considering merrily how much they might with safety eat and yet leave enough for the to-morrows that lay before them. Afterward they sat before the fire, in the shadow and shine of the flickering logs, happy and content in each other's presence. She dreamed, and he, watching her, dreamed, too. The wild, sweet wonder of life surged through them, touching their squalid surroundings to the high mystery of things unreal.
The strangeness of it was that he was a man of large and not very creditable experience of women, yet her deep, limpid eyes, her sweet voice, the immature piquancy of her movements that was the expression of her, had stirred his imagination more potently than if he had been the veriest schoolboy nursing a downy lip. He could not keep his eyes from this slender, exquisite girl, so dainty and graceful in her mobile piquancy. Fire and passion were in his heart and soul, restraint and repression in his speech and manner. For the fire and passion in him were pure and clean as the winds that sweep the hills.
But for the girl—she was so little mistress of her heart that she had no prescience of the meaning of this sweet content that filled her. And the voices that should have warned her were silent, busy behind the purple hills with lies and love and laughter and tears.
CHAPTER 5. ENTER SIMON HARLEY
The prospector's house in which they had found refuge was perched on the mountainside just at one edge of the draw. Rough as the girl had thought it, there was a more pretentious appearance to it than might have been expected. The cabin was of hewn logs mortared with mud, and care had been taken to make it warm. The fireplace was a huge affair that ate fuel voraciously. It was built of stone, which had been gathered from the immediate hillside.
The prospect itself showed evidence of having been worked a good deal, and it was an easy guess for the man who now stood looking into the tunnel that it belonged to some one of the thousands of miners who spend half their time earning a grubstake, and the other half dissipating it upon some hole in the ground which they have duped themselves into believing is a mine.
From the tunnel his eye traveled up the face of the white mountain to the great snow-comb that yawned over the edge of the rock-rim far above. It had snowed again heavily all night, and now showed symptoms of a thaw. Not once nor twice, but a dozen times, the man's anxious gaze had swept up to that great overhanging bank. Snowslides ran every year in this section with heavy loss to life and property. Given a rising temperature and some wind, the comb above would gradually settle lower and lower, at last break off, plunge down the precipitous slope, bringing thousands of tons of rock and snow with it, and, perhaps, bury them in a Titanic grave of ice. There had been a good deal of timber cut from the shoulder of the mountain during the past summer, and this very greatly increased the danger. That there was a real peril the man looking at it did not attempt to deny to himself. It would be enough to deny it to her in case she should ever suspect.
He had hoped for cold weather, a freeze hard enough to crust the surface of the snow. Upon this he might have made shift somehow to get her to Yesler's ranch, eighteen miles away though it was, but he knew this would not be feasible with the snow in its present condition. It was not certain that he could make the ranch alone; encumbered with her, success would be a sheer impossibility. On the other hand, their provisions would not last long. The outlook was not a cheerful one, from whichever point of view he took it; yet there was one phase of it he could not regret. The factors which made the difficulties of the situation made also its delights. Though they were prisoners in this solitary untrodden canyon, the sentence was upon both of them. She could look to none other than he for aid; and, at least, the drifts which kept them in held others out.
Her voice at his shoulder startled him.
"Wherefore this long communion with nature, my captain?" she gaily asked. "Behold, my lord's hot cakes are ready for the pan and his servant to wait upon him." She gave him a demure smiling little curtsy of mock deference.
Never had her distracting charm been more in evidence. He had not seen her since they parted on the previous night. He had built for himself a cot in the woodshack, and had contrived a curtain that could be drawn in front of her bed in the living-room. Thus he could enter in the morning, light the fires, and start breakfast without disturbing her. She had dressed her hair, now in a different way, so that it fell in low waves back from the forehead and was bunched at the nape of her neck. The light swiftness of her dainty grace, the almost exaggerated carnation of the slightly parted lips, the glad eagerness that sparked her eyes, brought out effectively the picturesqueness of her beauty.
His grave eyes rested on her so long that a soft glow mantled her cheeks. Perhaps her words had been too free, though she had not meant them so. For the first time some thought of the conventions distressed her. Ought she to hold herself more in reserve toward him? Must she restrain her natural impulses to friendliness?
His eyes released her presently, but not before she read in them the feelings that had softened them as they gazed into hers. They mirrored his poignant pleasure at the delight of her sweet slenderness so close to him, his perilous joy at the intimacy fate had thrust upon them. Shyly her lids fell to the flushed cheeks.
"Breakfast is ready," she added self-consciously, her girlish innocence startled like a fawn of the forest at the hunter's approach.
For whereas she had been blind now she saw in part. Some flash of clairvoyance had laid bare a glimpse of his heart and her own to her. Without misunderstanding the perfect respect for her which he felt, she knew the turbid banked emotions which this dammed. Her heart seemed to beat in her bosom like an imprisoned dove.
It was his voice, calm and resonant with strength, that brought her to earth again.
"And I am ready for it, lieutenant. Right about face. Forward—march!"
After breakfast they went out and tramped together the little path of hard-trodden snow in front of the house. She broached the prospect of a rescue or the chances of escape.
"We shall soon be out of food, and, anyhow, we can't stay here all winter," she suggested with a tremulous little laugh.
"You are naturally very tired of it already," he hazarded.
"It has been the experience of my life. I shall fence it off from all the days that have passed and all that are to come," she made answer vividly.
Their eyes met, but only for an instant.
"I am glad," he said quietly.
He began, then, to tell her what he must do, but at the first word of it she broke out in protest.
"No—no—no! We shall stay together. If you go I am going, too."
"I wish you could, but it is not possible. You could never get there. The snow is too soft and heavy for wading and not firm enough to bear your weight."
"But you will have to wade."
"I am stronger than you, lieutenant."
"I know, but——" She broke down and confessed her terror. "Would you leave me here—alone—with all this snow Oh, I couldn't stay—I couldn't."
"It's the only way," he said steadily. Every fiber in him rebelled at leaving her here to face peril alone, but his reason overrode the desire and rebellion that were hot within him. He must think first of her ultimate safety, and this lay in getting her away from here at the first chance.
Tears splashed down from the big eyes. "I didn't think you would leave me here alone. With you I don't mind it, but— Oh, I should die if I stayed alone."
"Only for twenty-four hours. Perhaps less. I shouldn't think of it if it weren't necessary."
"Take me with you. I am strong. You don't know how strong I am. I promise to keep up with you. Please!"
He shook his head. "I would take you with me if I could. You know that. But it's a man's fight. I shall have to stand up to it hour after hour till I reach Yesler's ranch. I shall get through, but it would not be possible for you to make it."
"And if you don't get through?"
He refused to consider that contingency. "But I shall. You may look to see me back with help by this time to-morrow morning."
"I'm not afraid with you. But if you go away Oh, I can't stand it. You don't know—you don't know." She buried her face in her hands.
He had to swallow down his sympathy before he went on. "Yes, I know. But you must be brave. You must think of every minute as being one nearer to the time of my return."
"You will think me a dreadful coward, and I am. But I can't help it. I AM afraid to stay alone. There's nothing in the world but mountains of snow. They are horrible—like death—except when you are here."
Her child eyes coaxed him to stay. The mad longing was in him to kiss the rosy little mouth with the queer alluring droop to its corners. It was a strange thing how, with that arched twist to her eyebrows and with that smile which came and went like sunshine in her eyes, she toppled his lifelong creed. The cardinal tenet of his faith had been a belief in strength. He had first been drawn to Virginia by reason of her pluck and her power. Yet this child's very weakness was her fountain of strength. She cried out with pain, and he counted it an asset of virtue in her. She acknowledged herself a coward, and his heart went out to her because of it. The battle assignments of life were not for the soft curves and shy winsomeness of this dainty lamb.
"You will be brave. I expect you to be brave, lieutenant." Words of love and comfort were crowding to his brain, but he would not let them out.
"How long will you be gone?" she sobbed.
"I may possibly get back before midnight, but you mustn't begin to expect me until to-morrow morning, perhaps not till to-morrow afternoon."
"Oh, I couldn't—I couldn't stay here at night alone. Don't go, please. I'll not get hungry, truly I won't, and to-morrow they will find us."
He rose, his face working. "I MUST go, child. It's the thing to do. I wish to Heaven it weren't. You must think of yourself as quite safe here. You ARE safe. Don't make it hard for me to go, dear."
"I AM a coward. But I can't help it. There is so much snow—and the mountains are so big." She tried valiantly to crush down her sobs. "But go. I'll—I'll not be afraid."
He buried her little hands in his two big ones and looked deep into her eyes. "Every minute of the time I am away from you I shall be with you in spirit. You'll not be alone any minute of the day or night. Whether you are awake or asleep I shall be with you."
"I'll try to remember that," she answered, smiling up at him but with a trembling lip.
She put him up some lunch while he made his simple preparations. To the end of the trench she walked with him, neither of them saying a word. The moment of parting had come.
She looked up at him with a crooked wavering little smile. She wanted to be brave, but she could not trust herself to say a word.
"Remember, dear. I am not leaving you. My body has gone on an errand. That is all."
Just now she found small comfort in this sophistry, but she did not tell him so.
"I—I'll remember." She gulped down a sob and still smiled through the mist that filmed her sight.
In his face she could see how much he was moved at her distress. Always a creature of impulse, one mastered her now, the need to let her weakness rest on his strength. Her arms slipped quickly round his neck and her head lay buried on his shoulder. He held her tight, eyes shining, the desire of her held in leash behind set teeth, the while sobs shook her soft round body in gusts.
"My lamb—my sweet precious lamb," she heard him murmur in anguish.
From some deep sex trait it comforted her that he suffered. With the mother instinct she began to regain control of herself that she might help him.
"It will not be for long," she assured him. "And every step of your way I shall pray for, your safety," she whispered.
He held her at arm's length while his gaze devoured her, then silently he wheeled away and plunged waist deep into the drifts. As long as he was in sight he saw her standing there, waving her handkerchief to him in encouragement. Her slight, dark figure, outlined against the snow, was the last thing his eyes fell upon before he turned a corner of the gulch and dropped downward toward the plains.
But when he was surely gone, after one fearful look at the white sea which encompassed her, the girl fled to the cabin, slammed the door after her, and flung herself on the bed to weep out her lonely terror in an ecstasy of tears. She had spent the first violence of her grief, and was sitting crouched on the rug before the open fire when the sound of a footstep, crunching the snow, startled her. The door opened, to let in the man who had just left her.
"You are back—already," she cried, her tear? stained face lifted toward him.
"Yes," he smiled' from the doorway. "Come here, little partner."
And when she had obediently joined him her eye followed his finger up the mountain-trail to a bend round which men and horses were coming.
"It's a relief-party," he said, and caught up his field-glasses to look them over more certainly. Two men on horseback, leading a third animal, were breaking a way down the trail, black spots against the background of white. "I guess Fort Salvation's about to be relieved," he added grimly, following the party through the glasses.
She touched the back of his hand with a finger. "Are you glad?" she asked softly.
"No, by Heaven!" he cried, lowering his glasses swiftly.
As he looked into her eyes the blood rushed to his brain with a surge. Her face turned to his unconsciously, and their lips met.
"And I don't even know your name," she murmured.
"Waring Ridgway; and yours?"
"Aline Hope," she said absently. Then a hot Rush ran over the girlish face. "No, no, I had forgotten. I was married last week."
The gates of paradise, open for two days, clanged to on Ridgway. He stared out with unseeing eyes into the silent wastes of snow. The roaring in his ears and the mountainsides that churned before his eyes were reflections of the blizzard raging within him.
"I'll never forget—never," he heard her falter, and her voice was a thousand miles away.
From the storm within him he was aroused by a startled cry from the girl at his side. Her fascinated gaze was fixed on the summit of the ridge above them. There was a warning crackle. The overhanging comb snapped, slid slowly down, and broke off. With gathering momentum it descended, sweeping into its heart rocks, trees, and debris. A terrific roar filled the air as the great white cloud came tearing down like an express-train.
Ridgway caught her round the waist and flung the girl against the wall of the cabin, protecting her with his body. The avalanche was upon them, splitting great trees to kindling-wood in the fury of its rush. The concussion of the wind shattered every window to fragments, almost tore the cabin from its foundations. Only the extreme tail of the slide touched them, yet they were buried deep in flying snow.
He found no great difficulty in digging a way out, and when he lifted her to the surface she was conscious. Yet she was pale even to the lips and trembled like an aspen in the summer breeze, clinging to him for support helplessly.
His cheerful voice rang like a bugle to her shocked brain.
"It's all past. We're safe now, dear—quite safe."
The first of the trail-breakers had dismounted and was plowing his way hurriedly to the cabin, but neither of them saw him as he came up the slope.
"Are you sure?" She shuddered, her hands still in his. "Wasn't it awful? I thought—" Her sentence trailed out unfinished.
"Are you unhurt, Aline?" cried the newcomer. And when he saw she was, he added: "Praise ye the Lord. O give thanks unto the Lord; for He is good: for His mercy endureth forever. He saved them for His name's sake, that He might make His mighty power to be known."
At sound of the voice they turned and saw the man hurrying toward them. He was tall, gray, and seventy, of massive frame and gaunt, still straight and vigorous, with the hooked nose and piercing eyes of a hawk. At first glance he looked always the bird of prey, but at the next as invariably the wolf, an effect produced by the salient reaching jaw and the glint of white teeth bared for a lip smile. Just now he was touched to a rare emotion. His hands trembled and an expression of shaken thankfulness rested in his face.
Aline, still with Ridgway's strong arms about her, slowly came back to the inexorable facts of life.
"As soon as we could get through—and thank God in time."
"I would have died, except for—" This brought her immediately to an introduction, and after she had quietly released herself the man who had saved her heard himself being formally presented: "Mr. Ridgway, I want you to meet my husband, Mr. Harley."
Ridgway turned to Simon Harley a face of hammered steel and bowed, putting his hands deliberately behind his back.
"I've been expecting you at Mesa, Mr. Harley," he said rigidly. "I'll be glad to have the pleasure of welcoming you there."
The great financier was wondering where he had heard the man's name before, but he only said gravely: "You have a claim on me I can never forget, Mr. Ridgway."
Scornfully the other disdained this proffer. "Not at all. You owe me nothing, Mr. Harley—absolutely nothing. What I have done I have done for her. It is between her and me."
At this moment the mind of Harley fitted the name Ridgway to its niche in his brain. So this was the audacious filibuster who had dared to fire on the trust flag, the man he had come West to ruin and to humble.
"I think you will have to include me, Mr. Ridgway," he said suavely. "What is done for my wife is done, also, for me."