THE SKY LINE OF SPRUCE
By EDISON MARSHALL
"The Voice of the Pack," "The Strength of the Pines," "The Snowshoe Trail," "Shepherds of the Wild," etc.
PART ONE THE WAKENING
PART TWO THE WOLF-MAN
PART THREE THE TAMING
The convict gang had a pleasant place to work to-day. Their road building had taken them some miles from the scattered outskirts of Walla Walla, among fields green with growing barley. The air was fresh and sweet; the Western meadow larks, newly come, seemed in imminent danger of splitting their own throats through the exuberance of their song. Even the steel rails of the Northern Pacific, running parallel to the stretch of new road, gleamed pleasantly in the spring sun.
The convicts themselves were in a genial mood, easily moved to wide grins; and with a single exception they looked much like any other road gang at work anywhere in the land. An expert might have recognized purely criminal types among them: to a layman they suggested merely the lower grades of unskilled labor. Some of the faces were distinctly brutal; there was the sullen visage of a powerful negro who, with different environment, might have been a Congo prince; but the face of "Plug" Spanos, a notorious gunman who was by far the worst character in the gang, might have been that of an artless plow-boy in a distant land under a warm sun. There remained, however, the "exception." Curiously enough, whenever the warden's thought dwelt upon the inmates of his prison, classifying them into various groups, there was always one wind-tanned, vivid face, one brawny, towering form that seemed to demand individual consideration. The man who was listed on the records as Ben Kinney was distinctly an individual. He some way failed to classify among the groups of his fellows. Because he had been sent out to-day with the road gang the two armed guards had an interesting subject of conversation.
In the first place he habitually did two men's work. He did not do it with any idea of trying to ingratiate himself with his keepers: no inmate of the institution at Walla Walla made any such mistake as that. He did it purely because he could not tone down his mighty strength and energy to stay even with his fellows. To-day Sprigley, the guard in first command of the gang, had placed him opposite Judy, the burly negro, but the latter was being driven straight toward absolute exhaustion. Yet Kinney at least knew how to subdue and direct the pouring fountain of his vitality and energy, for the robust blows of his pick fell with the regularity of a tireless machine. It was as if a wild stallion, off the plains, had been trained to draw the plow. His great muscles moved with marvelous precision; but for all the monotony and rhythm of his motions he conveyed no image of stolidity and dullness.
He was a great, dark man, his skin darkly brown from exposure; his straight hair showed almost coal black in spite of the fact that it had but recently been clipped close; his eyebrows were similarly black; and black hairs spread down his hands almost to the finger nails and cropped up from his chest at his open throat. It was a mighty, deep, full chest, the chest of a runner and a fighter, sustained by a strong, flat abdomen and by powerful, sturdy legs. Yet physical might and development were not all of Ben Kinney. The image conveyed was never one of sheer brutality. For all their black hair, the large, brawny hands were well-shaped and sensitive; he had a healthy, good-humored mouth that could evidently, on occasion, be the seat of a most pleasant, boyish smile. He had a straight, good nose, rather high cheek bones, and a broad, brown forehead, straight rather than sloping swiftly like that of the negro opposite. But none of his features, nor yet his brawny form, caught and held the attention as did his vivid, dark-gray eyes. They were deeply dark, even against his deeply tanned face, yet now and then one caught distinct surface lights, denoting the presence of unmeasured animal spirits, and perhaps, too, the surprising health and vitality of the engine of his life. They were keen eyes, alert, fiery with a zealot's fire: evidently the eyes of a steadfast, headstrong, purposeful man. Some complexity of lines about them, hard to trace, indicated a recklessness, too; a willingness to risk all that he had for his convictions.
"That's the queerest case we ever had here at Walla Walla," Sprigley told his fellow guard, as they watched the man's pick swing in the air. "Sometimes I wonder whether he ought to be here or not. Look at that face—he hasn't any more of a criminal face than I have."
The other guard, Howard, scanned his companion's face with mock care. "That ain't sayin' so much for him," he observed. But at once he began to evince real interest. "I maintain you can't tell anything from their faces," he answered seriously. "There's nothin' in it. The man's a crook, isn't he? Wasn't he caught red-handed?"
"Let me tell you about it. I was interested in the case and found out all I could concerning it. He apparently showed up in Seattle some time during the summer of 1919, a crook of the crooks, as you say. No one knows where he came from—and that's queer in itself. You know very well that his face and form are going to be remembered and noticed, yet he wasn't in any rogue's gallery, in any city. Desperate crook though he was, no one had ever heard of him before he showed up in Seattle.
"The crooks down there called him 'Wild' Kinney, and were pretty well scared of him. Swanson, one of the lieutenants of the Seattle force, whom I know well as I know you, told me that he was a power, sort of a king in the underworld from the very first, largely because he was afraid of nothing, absolutely desperate, and willing to take any chance. He wasn't a hop-head, yet they all looked at him as sort of queer; though ready to follow him to the last ditch, yet some way they thought him off his head. And Swanson believes that his career of crime started after he reached Seattle, not before—that he hadn't grown up to crime like most of the men in his gang. He didn't know anything about the 'profession'—as far as skill went he was a rank amateur, but he made it up with daring and cunning. Once or twice he got in a fight down there, and they all agree he fought like a mad man, the most terrible fighter in the whole district, and it took about a half dozen to stop him."
"You don't have to tell me that. Anybody who can swing a pick like that—"
"Now let me tell you how they happened to catch him. Maybe you heard—he and Dago Frank were in the act of breaking into the Western-Danish Bank. Part of this I'm giving you now came straight from Frank himself. He says that they were in the alley, in the act of jimmying a window, and all at once Kinney straightened up as if something had hit him and let the jimmy fall with a thump to the pavement. Frank said he thought that the man had 'gone off his nut,' but it's my private opinion that he had been somewhat deranged all the time he was in Seattle, and he just came to, more or less, that minute. The man hardly seemed to know what he was doing. 'Have you lost your guts, Kinney?' Frank asked him; and Kinney stood there, staring like he didn't know he was being spoken to. He put his hands to his head, then, like a man with a headache. And the next instant a cop came running from the mouth of the alley.
"Kinney was heeled, but he didn't even pull his gun. He still stood with his hands to his head. All his pards in the underworld always said he'd die before he'd give up, but he let the cop take him like he was a baby. Frank got away, but they got him, you remember, three weeks later. After some kind of a trial Kinney was sent down here."
Sprigley paused and shifted his gun from his right to his left shoulder. "You'll say that's all common enough," he went on. "Now let me tell you another queer thing. You know, the chief has started a system here to keep track of all the prisoners, with the idea of making them good citizens when they get out. He has them all fill out a card. Well, when this man Kinney turned in his card, he had written 'Ben' on it, but the rest was absolutely blank.
"Mr. Mitchell thought at first that the man couldn't write. It turned out, though, that he can write—an intelligent hand, and spell good too. Then Mitchell decided he was just sulking. But his second guess was no better than his first. I haven't got Mitchell persuaded yet, and maybe never will have him persuaded, but I'm confident I know the answer. The reason he didn't fill out that card was because he couldn't remember.
"He couldn't remember where or when he was born, or who were his folks, or where he had come from, or how he had spent his life. He knew that 'Ben,' his first name, sounded right to him, but 'Kinney' didn't—the reason likely being that Kinney was an alias adopted during his life as a criminal. I suppose you've noticed that queer, bewildered look he has when any one calls him Kinney. What his real name is he doesn't know. He can't even remember that. And the explanation is—complete loss of memory.
"You mark my words, Howard—that man hasn't been a criminal always. Something got wrong with his head, and he turned crook—you might say that the criminal side that all of us has simply took possession of him. That night in the alley he came to himself—only his mind was left a blank not only in regard to his life as a criminal, but all that had gone before."
"Then why don't you do something about it—besides talk? Mitchell says you're gettin' so you talk of nothin' else."
"It's not for me to do anything about it. The man was a criminal. The State can't go any further than that. I suppose if every man was set free who wasn't, in the last analysis, responsible for his crimes, we wouldn't have anybody left in the penitentiary. He's in for five years—considering what he'll pick up here, it might as well be for life. Amnesia—that's what the doctors call it—amnesia following some sort of a mental trouble. In the end you'll see that I'm right."
Sprigley was right. To Ben Kinney life was like a single pale light in a long, dark street. Complete loss of memory prevented him from looking backward. Complete loss of hope kept him from looking ahead.
It had been this way for months now—ever since the night the policeman had found him, the "jimmy" dropped from his hands, in the alley. Heaven knows what he had done, what madness had been upon him, before that time. But as Sprigley had said, that night had marked a change. It was true that so far as facts went he was no better off: when he had come to himself he had found his mind a blank regarding not only his career of crime, but all the years that had gone before. Even his own name eluded him. That of Kinney had an alien sound in his ears.
The past had simply ceased to exist for him; and because it is some way the key to the future, the latter seemed likewise blank,—a toneless gray that did not in the least waken his interest. Indeed the only light that flung into the unfathomable darkness of his forgetfulness was that which played in his dreams at night. Sometimes these were inordinately vivid, quite in contrast to the routine of prison life.
He felt if he could only recall these dreams clearly they would interpret for him the mystery of his own life. He wakened, again and again, with the consciousness of having dreamed the most stirring, amazing dreams, but what they were he couldn't tell. He could only remember fragments, such as a picture of rushing waters recurring again and again—and sometimes an amazing horizon, a dark line curiously notched against a pale green background.
They were not all bad dreams: in reality many of them stirred him and moved him happily, and he would waken to find the mighty tides of his blood surging fiercely through the avenues of veins. Evidently they recalled some happiness that was forgotten. And there was one phase, at least, of this work in the road gangs that brought him moving, intense delight. It was merely the sight of the bird life, abounding in the fields and meadows about the towns.
There had been quite a northern migration lately, these late spring days. The lesser songsters were already mating and nesting, and he found secret pleasure in their cheery calls and bustling activity. But they didn't begin to move him as did the waterfowl, passing in long V-shaped flocks. That strange, wild wanderer's greeting that the gray geese called down to their lesser brethren in the meadows had a really extraordinary effect upon him. It always caught him up and held him, stirring some deep, strange part of him that he hardly knew existed. Sometimes the weird, wailing sound brought him quite to the edge of a profound discovery, but always the flocks sped on and out of hearing before he could quite grasp it. When the moon looked down, through the barred window of his cell, he sometimes felt the same way. A great, white mysterious moon that he had known long ago. It was queer that there should be a relationship between the gray geese and the cold, white satellite that rode in the sky. Ben Kinney never tried to puzzle out what it was; but he always knew it with a knowledge not to be denied.
The last of the waterfowl had passed by now, but the northern migration was not yet done. The sun still moved north; warm, north-blowing winds blew the last of the lowering, wintry clouds back to the Arctic Seas whence they had come. And because the road work the convicts were doing brought them, this afternoon, in sight of the railroad right-of-way, Ben now and then caught sight of other wayfarers moving slowly, but no less steadily, toward the north. The open road beckoned northward, these full, balmy, late-April days, and various tattered men, mostly vagabonds and tramps, passed the gang from time to time on this same, northern quest.
Ben thought about them as birds of passage, and the thought amused him. And at the sight of a small, stooped figure advancing toward him up the railroad right-of-way he paused, leaning on his pick.
Because Ben had paused, for the first time in an hour, his two guards looked up to see what had attracted his attention. They saw what seemed to them a white-haired old wanderer of sixty years or more; but at first they were wholly at a loss to explain Ben's fascinated look of growing interest.
It was true that the old man scarcely represented the usual worthless, criminal type that took to vagabondage. As he paused to scrutinize the convict gang neither insolence nor fear, one of which was certainly to be expected, became manifest in his face. They had anticipated certain words in greeting, a certain look out of bleary, shifty eyes, but neither materialized. True, the old man was following the cinder trail northward, but plainly he did not belong to the brotherhood of tramps. They saw that he was white-haired and withered, but upright; and that undying youth dwelt in his twinkling blue eyes and the complexity of little, good-natured lines about his mouth. Poverty, age, the hardships of the cinder trail had not conquered him in the least. He was small physically, but his skinny arms and legs looked as if they were made of high-tension wire. His face was shrewd, but also kindly, and the gray stubble on his cheeks and chin did not in the least hide a smile that was surprisingly boyish and winning. And when he spoke his cracked good-natured voice was perfectly in character, evidently that of a man possessing full self-respect and confidence, yet brimming over with easy kindliness and humor.
Both guards would have felt instantly, instinctively friendly toward him if they had been free to feel at all. Instead they were held and amazed by the apparent fact that at the first scrutiny of the man's outline, his carriage and his droll, wrinkled face, the prisoner Kinney was moved and stirred as if confronted by the risen dead.
The old man himself halted, returning Kinney's stare. The moment had, still half concealed, an unmistakable quality of drama. In the contagion of suppressed excitement, the other prisoners paused, their tools held stiffly in their hands. Kinney's mind seemed to be reaching, groping for some astonishing truth that eluded him.
The old man ran, in great strides, toward him. "My God, aren't you Ben Darby?" he demanded.
The convict answered him as from a great distance, his voice cool and calm with an infinite certainty. "Of course," he said. "Of course I'm Darby."
For the moment that chance meeting thrilled all the spectators with the sense of monumental drama. The convicts stared; Howard, the second guard, forgot his vigilance and stared with open mouth. He started absurdly, rather guiltily, when the old man whirled toward him.
"What are you doing with Ben Darby in a convict gang?" the old wanderer demanded.
"What am I doin'?" Howard's astonishment gave way to righteous indignation. "I'm guardin' convicts, that's what I'm a-doin'." He composed himself then and shifted his gun from his left to his right shoulder. "He's here in this gang because he's a convict. Ask my friend, here, if you want to know the details. And who might you be?"
There was no immediate answer to that question. The old man had turned his eyes again to the tall, trembling figure of Ben, trying to find further proof of his identity. To Ezra Melville there could no longer be any shadow of doubt as to the truth: even that he had found the young man working in a gang of convicts could not impugn the fact that the dark-gray vivid eyes, set in the vivid face under dark, beetling brows, were unquestionably those of the boy he had seen grow to manhood's years, Ben Darby.
It was true that he had changed. His face was more deeply lined, his eyes more bright and nervous; there was a long, dark scar just under the short hair at his temple that Melville had never seen before. And the finality of despair seemed to settle over the droll features as he walked nearer and took Darby's hand.
"Ben, Ben!" he said, evidently struggling with deep emotion. "What are you doing here?"
The younger man gave him his hand, but continued to stare at him in growing bewilderment. "Five years—for burglary," he answered simply. "Guilty, too—I don't know anything more. And I can't remember—who you are."
"You don't know me?" Some of Ben's own bewilderment seemed to pass to him. "You know Ezra Melville—"
Sprigley, whose beliefs in regard to Ben had been strengthened by the little episode, stepped quickly to Melville's side. "He's suffering loss of memory," he explained swiftly. "At least, he's either lost his memory or he's doing a powerful lot of faking. This is the first time he ever recalled his own name."
"I'm not faking," Ben told them quietly. "I honestly don't remember you—I feel that I ought to, but I don't. I honestly didn't remember my name was Darby until a minute ago—then just as soon as you spoke it, I knew the truth. Nothing can surprise me, any more. I suppose you're kin of mine—?"
Melville gazed at him in incredulous astonishment, then turned to Sprigley. "May I talk to you about this case?" he asked quietly. "If not to you, who can I talk to? There are a few points that might help to clear up—"
Ordering his men to their work, Melville and Sprigley stood apart, and for nearly an hour engaged in the most earnest conversation. The afternoon was shadow-flaked and paling when they had finished, and before Sprigley led his men back within the gray walls he had arranged for Melville to come to the prison after the dinner hour and confer with Mitchell, the warden.
Many and important were the developments arising from this latter conference. One of the least of them was that Melville's northward journey was postponed for some days, and that within a week this same white-haired, lean old man, dressed in the garb of the cinder trail, was pleading his case to no less a personage than the governor of the State of Washington in whom authority for dealing with Ben's case was absolutely vested. It came about, from the same cause, that a noted alienist, Forest, of Seattle, visited Ben Darby in his cell; and finally that the prisoner himself, under the strict guard of Sprigley, was taken to the capital at Olympia.
The brief inquisition that followed, changing the entire current of Ben Darby's life, occurred in the private office of McNamara, the Governor. McNamara himself stood up to greet them when they entered, the guard and the convict. Ezra Melville and Forest, the alienist from Seattle, were already in session. The latter conducted the examination.
He tried his subject first on some of the most simple tests for sanity. It became evident at once, however, that except for his amnesia Ben's mind was perfectly sound: he passed all general intelligence tests with a high score, he conversed easily, he talked frankly of his symptoms. He had perfect understanding of the general sweep of events in the past twenty years: his amnesia seemed confined to his own activities and the activities of those intimately connected with him. Where he had been, what he had done, all the events of his life up to the night of his arrest remained, for all his effort to remember them, absolutely in darkness.
"You don't remember this man?" Forest asked him quietly, indicating Ezra Melville.
Again Ben's eyes studied the droll, gray face. "With the vaguest kind of memory. I know I've seen him before—often. I can't tell anything else."
"He's a good friend of your family. He knew your folks. I should say he was a very good friend, to take the trouble and time he has, in your behalf."
Ben nodded. He did not have to be told that fact. The explanation, however, was beyond him.
Forest leaned forward. "You remember the Saskatchewan River?"
Ben straightened, but the dim images in his mind were not clear enough for him to answer in the affirmative. "I'm afraid not."
Melville leaned forward in his chair. "Ask him if he remembers winning the canoe race at Lodge Pole—or the time he shot the Athabaska Rapids."
Ben turned brightly to him, but slowly shook his head. "I can't remember ever hearing of them before."
"I think you would, in time," Forest remarked. "They must have been interesting experiences. Now what do these mean to you?—Thunder Lake—Abner Darby—Edith Darby—MacLean's College——"
Ben relaxed, focusing his attention on the names. For the instant the scene about him, the anxious, interested faces, faded from his consciousness. Thunder Lake! Somewhere, some time, Thunder Lake had had the most intimate associations with his life. The name stirred him and moved him; dim voices whispered in his ears about it, but he couldn't quite catch what they said. He groped and reached in vain.
There was no doubt but that an under-consciousness had full knowledge of the name and all that it meant. But it simply could not reach that knowledge up into his conscious mind.
Abner Darby! It was curious what a flood of tenderness swept through him as, whispering, he repeated the name. Some one old and white-haired had been named Abner Darby: some one whom he had once worshipped with the fervor of boyhood, but who had leaned on his own, strong shoulders in latter years. Since his own name was Darby, Abner Darby was, in all probability, his father; but his reasoning intelligence, rather than his memory, told him so.
The name of Edith Darby conjured up in his mind a childhood playmate,—a girl with towzled yellow curls and chubby, confiding little hands.... But these dim memory-pictures went no further: there were no later visions of Edith as a young woman, blossoming with virgin beauty. They stopped short, and he had a deep, compelling sense of grief. The child, unquestionably a sister, had likely died in early years. The third name of the three, MacLean's College, called up no memories whatever.
"I can hardly say that I remember much about them," he responded at last. "I think they'll come plainer, though, the more I think about them. I just get the barest, vague ideas."
"They'll strengthen in time, I'm sure," Forest told him. "Put them out of your mind, for now. Let it be blank." The alienist again leaned toward him, his eyes searching. There ensued an instant's pause, possessing a certain quality of suspense. Then Forest spoke quickly, sharply. "Wolf Darby!"
In response a curious tremor passed over Ben's frame, giving in some degree the effect of a violent start. "Wolf Darby," he repeated hesitantly. "Why do you call me that?"
"The very fact that you know the name refers to you, not some one else, shows that that blunted memory of yours has begun to function in some degree. Now think. What do you know about 'Wolf' Darby?"
Ben tried in vain to find an answer. A whole world of meaning lingered just beyond the reach of his groping mind; but always it eluded him. It was true, however, that the name gave him a certain sense of pleasure and pride, as if it had been used in compliment to some of his own traits. Far away and long ago, men had called him "Wolf" Darby: he felt that perhaps the name had carried far, through many sparsely settled districts. But what had been the occasion for it he did not know.
He described these dim memory pictures; and Forest's air of satisfaction seemed to imply that his own theories in regard to Ben's case were receiving justification. He appeared quite a little flushed, deeply intent, when he turned to the next feature of the examination. He suddenly spoke quietly to old Ezra Melville; and the latter put a small, cardboard box into his hands.
"I want you to see what I have here," Forest told Ben. "They were your own possessions once—you sent them yourself to Abner Darby, your late father—and I want you to see if you remember them."
Ben's eyes fastened on the box; and the others saw a queer drawing of the lines of his face, a curious tightening and clasping of his fingers. There was little doubt but that his subconsciousness had full cognizance of the contents of that box. He was trembling slightly, too—in excitement and expectation—and Ezra Melville, suddenly standing erect, was trembling too. The moment was charged with the uttermost suspense.
Evidently this was the climax in the examination. Even McNamara, the Governor, was breathless with interest in his chair; Forest had the rapt look of a scientist in some engrossing experiment. He opened the box, taking therefrom a roll of white cotton. This he slowly unrolled, revealing two small, ribboned ornaments of gold or bronze.
Ben's starting eyes fastened on them. No doubt he recognized them. A look of veritable anguish swept his brown face, and all at once small drops of moisture appeared on his brow and through the short hairs at his temples. The dark scar at his temple was suddenly brightly red from the pounding blood beneath.
"The Victoria Cross, of course," he said slowly, brokenly. "I won it, didn't I—the day—that day at Ypres—the day my men were trapped—"
His words faltered then. The wheels of his memory, starting into motion, were stilled once more. Again the great darkness dropped over him; there were only the medals left in their roll of cotton, and the broken fragments of a story—of some wild, stirring event of the war just gone—remaining in his mind. Yet to Forest the experiment was an unqualified success.
"There's no doubt of it!" he exclaimed. He turned to McNamara, the Governor. "His brain is just as sound as yours or mine. With the right environment, the right treatment, he'd be on the straight road to recovery. In a general way of speaking he has recovered now, largely, from the purely temporary trouble that he had before."
McNamara focused an intent gaze first on Ben, then on the alienist. "It is, then—as you guessed."
"Absolutely. The night of his arrest marked the end of his trouble; you might say that his brain simply snapped back into health and began to function normally again, after a period of temporary mania from shell-shock. It is true that his memory was left blank, but there doesn't seem to be any organic reason for it to be blank—other than lack of incentive to remember. Catch me up, if you don't follow me. In other words, he has been slowly convalescing since that night: under the proper stimuli I have no doubt that everything would come back to him."
"And our friend here—Melville—offers to supply those stimuli."
"Exactly. And it's up to you to say whether he gets a chance."
Thoughtfully the executive drummed his desk with his pencil. Presently a smile, markedly boyish and pleasant, broke over his face. More than once, in the line of duty imposed by his high office, he had been obliged to make decisions contrary to every dictate of mercy. He was all the more pleased at this opportunity to do, with a clear conscience, the thing that his kindness prompted. He turned slowly in his chair.
"Darby, I suppose you followed what the doctor said?" he asked easily.
"Fairly well, I think."
"I'll review it, if I may. It seems, Ben, that you have been the victim of a strange set of unfortunate circumstances. Due to the efforts of an old family friend—a most devoted and earnest friend if I may say so—we've looked up your record, and now we know more about you than you know about yourself. You served in France with Canadian troops and there, you will be proud to know, you won among other honors the highest honor that the Government of England can award a hero. There you were shell-shocked, in the last months of the war.
"You did not return to your home. Shell-shock, Forest tells me, is a curious thing, resulting in many forms of mania. Yours led you into crime. For some months you lived as a desperate criminal in Seattle. You came to yourself in the act of breaking into a bank, only to find that your memory of not only your days of crime but all that had gone before was left a blank. That night, as you know, marked your arrest.
"Forest has just explained that you are organically sound—that the recovery of your memory is just a matter of time and the proper stimuli. Now, Ben, it isn't the purpose of this State to punish men when they are not responsible for their deeds. Melville tells me that your record, in your own home, was the best; your war record alone, I believe, would entitle you to the limit of mercy from the State. I don't see how we can hold you responsible for deeds done while you were mentally disabled from shell-shock.
"All you need for complete recovery, to call everything back in your mind, is the proper stimuli. At least that is the opinion of Doctor Forest. What those proper stimuli are of course no one knows for sure—but Doctor Forest has a theory; and I think he will tell you that he will share the credit for it with the same man who has been your friend all the way through. They think they know what is best for you. The final decision has been put up to me as to whether or not they shall be permitted to give it a trial.
"This good friend of yours has offered to try to put it through. He has a plan outlined that he'll tell you of later, that will not only be the best possible influence toward recalling your memory, but will also give you a clean, new start in life. A chance for every success.
"So you needn't return to Walla Walla, Darby. I'm going to parole you—under the charge of your benefactor. Melville, from now on it's up to you."
The little, withered gray man looked very solemn as he rose. The others were stricken instantly solemn too, surprised that the droll smile they were so used to seeing had died on the homely, kindly face. Even his twinkling eyes were sobered too.
Vaguely amused, yet without scorn, McNamara and Forest got up to shake his hand. "I'll look after him," Melville assured them. "Never fear for that."
Slight as he was, wasted by the years, his was a figure of unmistakable dignity as he thanked them, gravely and earnestly, for their kindness in Ben's behalf. Soon after he and his young charge went out together.
There was a great house-cleaning in the dome of the heavens one memorable night that flashed like a jewel from the murky desolation of a rainy spring. The little winds came in troops, some from the sea, some with loads of balsam from the great forests of the Olympic Peninsula, and some, quite tired out, from the stretching sage plains to the east, and they swept the sky of clouds as a housekeeper sweeps the ceiling of cobwebs. Not a wisp, not one trailing streamer remained.
The Seattle citizenry, for the first time in some weeks, recalled the existence of the stars. These emerged in legions and armies, all the way from the finest diamond dust to great, white spheres that seemed near enough to reach up and touch. Little forgotten stars that had hidden away since Heaven knows when in the deepest recesses of the skies came out to join in the celebration. Aged men, half blind, beheld so many that they thought their sight was returning to them, and youths saw whole constellations that they had never beheld before. They continued their high revels until a magnificent moon rose in the east, too big and too bright to compete with.
It was not just a crescent moon, about to fade away, or even a rain moon—one of those standing straight up in the sky so that water can run out as out of a dipper. It was almost at its full, large and nearly round, and it made the whole city, which is rather like other cities in the daylight, seem a place of enchantment. It was so bright that the electric signs along Second Avenue were not even counter-attractions.
No living creature who saw it remained wholly unmoved by it. Wary young men, crafty and slick as foxes, found themselves proposing to their sweethearts before they could catch themselves; and maidens who had looked forward to some years yet of independent gaiety found themselves accepting. Old tom-cats went wooing; old spinsters got out old letters; old husbands thought to return and kiss their wives before venturing down to old, moth-eaten clubs. Old dogs, too well-bred to howl, were lost and absent-minded with dreams that were older than all the rest of these things put together.
But to no one in the city was the influence of the moon more potent than to Ben Darby, once known as "Wolf" Darby through certain far-spreading districts, and now newly come from the State capital, walking Seattle's streets with his ward and benefactor, Ezra Melville. No matter how faltering was his memory in other regards, the moon, at least, was an old acquaintance. He had known it in the nights when its light had probed into his barred cell; but his intimate acquaintance with it had begun long, long before that. Not even the names that the alienist, Forest, had spoken—the names of places and people close to his own heart—stirred his memory like the sight of the mysterious sphere rolling through the empty places of the sky. It recalled, clearer than any other one thing, the time and place of his early years.
He could not put into words just how it affected him. From first to last, even through his days of crime, it had been the one thing constant—the unchanging symbol—that in any manner connected his present with his shadowed past. It had served to recall in him, more than any other one thing, the fact that there was a past to look for—the assurance that somewhere, far away, he had been something more than a reckless criminal in city slums. The love he had for it was an old love, proving to him conclusively that his past life had been intimately associated, some way, with moonlight falling in open places. Yet the mood that was wakened in him went even farther. It was as if the sight of the argent satellite stirred and moved deep-buried instincts innate in him, in no way connected with any experience of his immediate life. Rather it was as if his love for it were a racial love, reaching back beyond his own life: something inborn in him. It was as if he were recalling it, not alone from his own past, but from a racial existence a thousand-thousand years before his own birth. His memory was strangely stifled, but, oh, he remembered the moon! Forest had spoken of stimuli! The mere sight of the blue-white beams was the best possible stimulus to call him to himself.
Ezra Melville and he walked under it, talking little at first, and mostly the old, blue twinkling eyes watched his face. Seemingly with no other purpose than to escape the bright glare of the street lights they walked northward along the docks, below Queen Anne Hill, passed old Rope Walk, through the suburb of Ballard, finally emerging on the Great Northern Railroad tracks heading toward Vancouver and the Canadian border. For all that Ben's long legs had set a fast pace Melville kept cheerfully beside him throughout the long walk, seemingly without trace of fatigue.
They paused at last at a crossing, and Ben faced the open fields. Evidently, before crime had claimed him, he had been deeply sensitive to nature's beauty. Ezra saw him straighten, his dark, vivid face rise; his quiet talk died on his lips. Evidently the peaceful scene before him went home to him very straight. He was very near thralldom from some quality of beauty that dwelt here, some strange, deep appeal that the moonlit realm made to his heart.
For the moment Ben had forgotten the old, tried companion at his side. Vague memories stirred him, trying to convey him an urgent message. He could all but hear: the sight of the meadows, ensilvered under the moon, were making many things plain to him which before were shadowed and vague. The steel rails gleamed like platinum, the tree tops seemed to have white, molten metal poured on them. It was hard to take his eyes off those moonlit trees. They got to him, deep inside; thrilling to him, stirring. Perhaps in his Lost Land the moon shone on the trees this same way.
There were no prison walls around him to-night. The high buildings behind him, pressing one upon another, had gone to sustain the feeling of imprisonment, but it had quite left him now. There were no cold, watchful lights,—only the moon and the stars and an occasional mellow gleam from the window of a home. There was scarcely any sound at all; not even a stir—as of prisoners tossing and uneasy in their cells. His whole body felt rested.
The air was marvelously sweet. Clover was likely in blossom in nearby fields. He breathed deep, an unknown delight stealing over him. He stole on farther, into the mystery of the night—ravished, tingling and almost breathless from an inner and inexplicable excitement. Melville walked quietly beside him.
Forest had given over the case: it was Melville's time for experiments to-night. All the way out he had watched his patient, sounding him, studying his reactions and all that he had beheld had gone to strengthen his own convictions. And now, after this moment in the meadows, the old man was ready to go on with his plan.
"Let's set down here," he invited casually. Ben started, emerging from his revery. The old man's cheery smile had returned, in its full charm, to his droll face. "You'll want to know what it's all about—and what I have in mind. And I sure think you've done mighty well to hold onto your patience this long."
He sat himself on the rail, and Ben quietly took a seat beside him. "There are plenty of things I'd like to know," he admitted.
"And plenty of things I ain't goin' to tell you, neither—for the reason that Forest advised against it," Ezra went on. "I don't understand it—but he says you've got a lot better chance to get your memory workin' clear again if things are recalled to you by the aid of 'stimuli' instead of having any one tell you. I've agreed to supply the 'stimuli.'
"I don't see any harm in tellin' you that the guesses you've already made are right. Your name is Ben Darby—and you used to be known as 'Wolf' Darby—for reasons that sooner or later you may know. Abner Darby was your father. Edith Darby was your sister that ain't no more. You went awhile to MacLean's College, in Ontario.
"Now, Ben, I'm going to put a proposition up to you. I'm hoping you'll see fit to accept it. And I might as well say right here, that while it's the best plan possible to bring you back your memory, and that while it offers just the kind of 'stimuli' you're supposed to need, neither 'stimuli' nor stimulus or stimulum has got very much to do with it. I argued that point mighty strong because I knew it would appeal to Forest, and through him, to the governor. I don't see it makes a whale of a lot of difference whether you get your memory back or not.
"Maybe you don't foller me. But you know and I know you're all right now, remembering clear enough everything that happened since you was arrested, and I don't see what difference it makes whether or not you remember who your great-aunt was, and the scrapes you got in as a kid. You can talk and walk and figger, get by in any comp'ny, and you suit me for a buddy just as you are. However, Forest seemed to think it was mighty important—and it may be.
"The reason I'm goin' to take you where I'm goin' to take you is for your own good. I'm sort of responsible for you, bein' your folks are dead. I know you from head to heel, and I think I know what's good for you, what you can do and what you can't do and where you succeed and where you fail. And I'll say right here you wasn't born to be no gangman in a big city like Seattle. You'll find that isn't your line at all."
"I'm willing to take your word for that, Mr. Melville," Ben interposed quietly.
"And I might say, now a good time as any, to let up on the 'Mister.' My name is Ezra Melville, and I've been known as 'Ezram' as long as I can remember, to my friends. The Darbys in particular called me that, and you're a Darby.
"I'll say in the beginning I can't do for you all I'd like to do, simply because I haven't the means. The first time you saw me I was walkin' ties, and you'll see me walkin' some more of 'em before you're done. I know you ain't got any money, and due to the poker habit I ain't got much either—in spite of the fact I've done two men's work for something over forty years. On this expedition to come we'll have to go on the cheaps. No Pullmans, no hotels—sleeping out the hay when we're caught out at night. Maybe ridin' the blinds, whenever we can. I'm awful sorry, but it jest can't be helped. But I will say—when it comes to work I can do my full share, without kickin'."
Ben stared in amazement. It was almost as if the old man were pleading a case, rather than giving glorious alms to one to whom hope had seemed dead. Ben tried to cut in, to ask questions, but the old man's words swept his own away.
"To begin at the beginning, I've got a brother—leastwise I had him a few weeks ago—Hiram Melville by name," Ezram went on. "You'd remember him well enough. He was a prospector up to a place called Snowy Gulch—a town way up in the Caribou Mountains, in Canada. Some weeks ago, herdin' cattle in Eastern Oregon, I got a letter from him, and started north, runnin' into you on the way up. The letter's right here."
He drew a white envelope from his coat pocket, opening it slowly. "This is a real proposition, son," he went on in a sobered voice. "I'm mighty glad that I've got something, at least worth lookin' into, to let you in on. I only wish it was more."
"Why should you want to let me in on anything?" Ben asked clearly.
The direct question received only a stare of blank amazement from Ezram. "Why should I—" he repeated, seemingly surprised out of his life by the question. "Shucks, and quit interruptin' me. But I'll say right here I've got my own ideas, if you must know. Didn't I hear that while you was rampin' around the underworld, you showed yourself a mighty good fighter? Well, there's likely to be some fightin' where we're goin', and I want some one to do it besides myself. If there ain't fightin', at least they'll be worklots of work. Maybe I'm gettin' a little too old to do much of it. I want a buddy—some one who will go halfway with me."
"Therefore I suppose you go to the 'pen' to find one," Ben commented, wholly unconvinced.
"I'm going to make this proposition good," Ezram went on as if he had not heard, "probably a fourth—maybe even a third—to you. And I ain't such a fool as I look, neither. I know the chances of comin' out right on it are twice as good if somebody young and strong, and who can fight, is in on it with me. Listen to this."
Opening the letter, he read laboriously:
Snowy Gulch, B.C.
DEAR BROTHER EZRA:—
I rite this with what I think is my dying hand. It's my will too. I'm at the hotel at Snowy Gulch—and not much more time. You know I've been hunting a claim. Well, I found it—rich a pocket as any body want, worth a quarter million any how and in a district where the Snowy Gulch folks believe there ain't a grain of gold.
It's yours. Come up and get it quick before some thieves up hear jump it. Lookout for Jeffery Neilson and his gang they seen some of my dust. I'm too sick to go to recorder in Bradleyburg and record claim. Get copy of this letter to carry, put this in some safe place. The only condition is you take good care of Fenris, the pet I raised from a pup. You'll find him and my gun at Steve Morris's.
I felt myself going and just did get hear. You get supplies horses at Snowy Gulch go up Poor Man Creek through Spruce Pass over to Yuga River. Go down Yuga River past first rapids along still place to first creek you'll know it cause there's an old cabin just below and my canoe landing. Half mile up, in creek bed, is the pocket and new cabin. And don't tell no one in Snowy Gulch who you are and where you going. Go quick brother Ez and put up a stone for me at Snowy Gulch.
There was a long pause after Ezram's voice had died away. Ben's eyes glowed in the moonlight.
"And you haven't heard—whether your brother is still alive?"
"I got a wire the hotel man sent me. It reached me weeks before the letter came, and I guess he must have died soon after he wrote it. I suppose you see what he means when he says to carry a copy of this letter, instead of the original."
"Of course—because it constitutes his will, your legal claim. Just the fact that you are his brother would be claim enough, I should think, but since the claim isn't recorded, this simplifies matters for you. You'd better make a copy of it and you can leave it in some safe place. And of course this claim is what you offered to let me in on."
"That's it. Not much, but all what I got. What I want to know is—if it's a go."
"Wait just a minute. You've asked me to go in with you on a scheme that looks like a clear quarter of a million, even though I can't give anything except my time and my work. You found me in a penitentiary, busted and all in—a thief and a gangster. Before we go any further, tell me what service I've done you, what obligation you're under to me, that gives me a right to accept so much from you?"
It might have been in the moonlight that Ezram's eyes glittered perceptibly. "You're in my charge," he grinned. "I guess you ain't got any say comin'."
"Wait—wait." Ben sprang to his feet, and caught by his earnestness, Ezram got up too. "I sure—I sure appreciate the trust you put in me," Ben went on slowly. "For my own part I'd give everything I've got and all I'd hope to ever get to go with you. It's a chance such as I never dared believe would come to me again—a chance for big success—a chance to go away and get a new start in a country where I feel, instinctively, that I'd make good. But that's only the beginning of it."
The dark vivid eyes seemed to glow in the soft light. "Forgive me if I talk frank; and if it sounds silly I can't help it," Ben continued. "You've never been in prison—with a five-year sentence hanging over you—and nobody giving a damn. For some reason I can't guess you've already done more for me than I can ever hope to repay. You got me out of prison, you wakened hope and self-respect in me when I thought they were dead, and you've proved a friend when I'd given up any thought of ever knowing human friendship again. I was down and out, Ezram. Anything you want me to do I'll do to the last ditch. You know I can fight—you know how a man can fight if it's his last chance. I've got some bonus money coming to me from the Canadian Government—and I'll put that in too, because we'll be needing horses and supplies and things that cost money. But I can't take all that from a stranger. You must know how it is. A man can't, while he's young and strong, accept charity—"
"Good Lord, it ain't charity!" the old man shouted, drowning him out. "I'm gettin' as much pleasure out of it as you." His voice sank again; and there was no line of mirth in his face.
"It was long ago, in Montreal," Ezram went on, after a pause. "I knew your mother, as a girl. She married a better man, but I told her that every wish of hers was law to me. You're her son."
Night is always a time of mystery in Snowy Gulch—that little cluster of frame shacks lost and far in the northern reaches of the Caribou Range. Shadows lie deep, pale lights spring up here and there in windows, with gaping, cavernous darkness between; a wet mist is clammy on the face. At such times one forgets that here is a town, an enduring outpost of civilization, and can remember only the forests that stretch so heavy and dark on every side. Indeed the town seems simply swallowed up in these forests, immersed in their silence, overspread by their gloom, and the red gods themselves walk like sentries in the main street.
The breath that is so fragrant and strange between the fronting rows of shacks is simply that of the forest: inept the woodsman who would not recognize it at once. The silence is a forest silence, and if the air is tense and electric, it is because certain wilderness forces that no white man can name but which surely dwell in the darker thickets have risen and are in possession.
It is not a time when human beings are at their best and strongest. There is an instinctive, haunting feeling which, though not fear, wakens a feeling of inadequacy and meekness. Only a few—those who have given their love and their lives to the wild places—have any idea of sympathetic understanding with it. Among these was Beatrice Neilson, and she herself did not fully understand the dreams and longings that swept her ever at the fall of the mysterious wilderness night.
The forest had never grown old to her. Its mystery was undying. Born in its shadow, her love had gone out to it in her earliest years, and it held her just as fast to-day. All her dreams—the natural longings of an imaginative girl born to live in an uninhabited portion of the earth—were inextricably bound up in it; whatever plans she had for the future always included it. Not that she was blind to its more terrible qualities: its might and its utter remorselessness that all foresters, sooner or later, come to recognize. Her thews were strong, and she loved it all the more for the tests that it put to its children.
She was a daughter of the forests, and its mark was on her. To-night the same moon that, a thousand miles to the south, was lighting the way for Ben and Ezram on their northern journey, shone on her as she hastened down the long, shadowed street toward her father's shack, revealing her forest parentage for all to see. The quality could be discerned in her very carriage—swift and graceful and silent—vaguely suggesting that of the wild creatures themselves. But there was no coarseness or ruggedness about her face and form such as superficial observation might have expected. Physically she was like a deer, strong, straight-limbed, graceful, slender rather than buxom, dainty of hands and feet. A perfect constitution and healthful surroundings had done all this. And good fairies had worked further magic: as she passed beneath the light at the door of the rude hotel there was revealed an unquestioned and rather startling facial beauty.
It seemed hardly fitting in this stern, rough land—the soft contour and delicacy of the girl's features. It had come straight from her mother, a woman who, in gold-rush days, had been the acknowledged beauty of the province. Nor was it merely the attractive, animal beauty that is so often seen in healthy, rural girls. Rather its loveliness was of a mysterious, haunting kind that one associates with old legends and far distant lands.
Perhaps its particular appeal lay in her eyes. They seemed to be quite marvelously deep and clear, so darkly gray that they looked black in certain lights, and they were so shadowed and pensive that sometimes they gave the image of actual sadness. For all the isolation of her home she was no stranger to romance; but the romance that was to be seen, like a gentleness, in her face was that of the great, shadowed forest in which she dwelt.
Pensive, wistful, enthralled in a dreamy sadness,—what could be nearer the tone and pitch of the northern forest itself? There might have been also depths of latent passion such as is known to all who live the full, strong life of the woods. The lines were soft about her lips and eyes, indicating a marked sweetness and tenderness of nature; but these traits did not in the least deny her parentage. No one but the woodsman knows how gentle, how hospitably tender, the forest may be at times.
She had fine, dark straight brows that served to darken her eyes, dark brown hair waving enough to soften every line of her face, a girlish throat and a red mouth surprisingly tender and childish. As might have been expected her garb was neither rich nor smart, but it was pretty and well made and evidently fitted for her life: a loose "middy," blue skirt, woolen stockings and rather solid little boots.
As she passed the door of the hotel one of the younger men who had been lounging about the stove strode out and accosted her. She half-turned, recognized his face in the lamplight, and frankly recoiled.
She had been lost in dreams before, vaguely pensive, for Beatrice had been watching the darkness overspread and encompass the dark fringe of the spruce forest that enclosed the town. Now, because she recognized the man and knew his type—born of the wild places even as herself, but a bastard breed—the tender, wistful half-smile sped from her childish mouth and her eyes grew alert and widened as if with actual fear. She halted, evidently in doubt as to her course.
"Going home?" the man asked. "I'm going up to see your pop, and I'll see you there, if you don't mind."
Ray Brent's voice had an undeniable ring of power. It was deeply bass, evidently the voice of a passionate, reckless, brutal man. The covetous caress of his thick hand upon her arm indicated that he was wholly sure of himself in regard to her.
She stared with growing apprehension into his even-featured, not unhandsome face. Evidently she found it hard to meet his eyes,—eyes wholly lacking in humor and kindliness, but unquestionably vivid and compelling under his heavy, dark brows. "I'm going home," she told him at last. "I guess, if you're going up to see Pop, you can walk along too."
The man fell in beside her, his powerful frame overshadowing hers. It was plain at once that the manner of her consent did not in the least disturb him. "You're just letting me because I'm going up there anyway, eh?" he asked. "I'll walk along further than that with you before I'm done."
The girl paused, as if in appeal. "Ray, we've thrashed that out long ago," she responded. "I wish you wouldn't keep talking about it. If you want to walk with me—"
"All right, but you'll be changing your mind one of these days." Ray's voice rang in the silence, indicating utter indifference to the fact that many of the loungers on the street were listening to the little scene. "I've never seen anything I wanted yet that I didn't get—and I want you. Why don't you believe what your pop says about me? He thinks Ray Brent is the goods."
"I'm not going to talk about it any more. I've already given you my answer—twenty times."
The man talked on, but the girl walked with lifted chin, apparently not hearing. They followed the board sidewalk into the shadows, finally turning in at a ramshackle, three-room house that was perched on the hillside almost at the end of the street at the outer limits of the village.
The girl turned to go in, but the man held fast to her arm. "Wait just a minute, Bee," he urged. "I've got one thing more to say to you."
The girl looked into his face, now faintly illumined by the full moon that was rising, incredibly large and white, above the dark line of the spruce tops. For all the regularity of his rather handsome features, his was never an attractive face to her, even in first, susceptible girlhood; and in the moonlight it suddenly filled her with dread. Ray Brent was a dangerous type: imperious willed, slave to his most degenerate instincts, reckless, as free from moral restraint as the most savage creatures that roamed his native wilds. Now his facial lines appeared noticeably deep, dark like scars, and curious little flakes of iniquitous fire danced in his sunken eyes.
"Just one minute, Bee," he went on, wholly rapt in his own, devouring desires. The dark passions of the man, always just under the skin, seemed to be getting out of bounds. "When I want something, I don't know how to quit till I get it. It's part of my nature. Your pop knows that—and that's why he's made me his pardner in a big deal."
"If my father wants men like you—for his pardners, I can't speak for his judgment."
"Wait just a minute. He's told me—and I know he's told you too—that I'd suit him all right for a son-in-law. He and I agree on that. And this country ain't like the places you read about in your story books—it's a man's country. Oh, I know you well enough. It's time you got down to brass tacks. If you're going to be a northern woman, you've got to be content with the kind of men that grow up here. Up here, the best man wins, the hardest, strongest man. That's why I'm going to win you."
Because he was secretly attacking her dreams, the dearest part of her being, she felt the first surge of rising anger.
"You're not the best man here," she told him, straightening. "If you were, I'd move out. You may be the strongest in your body, and certainly the hardest, going further to get your own way—but a real man would break you in two in a minute. Some one more than a brute to beat horses to death and jump claims. I'm going in now. Please take away your hand."
"One thing more. This is the North. We do things in a man's way up here—not a story-book way. The strong man gets what he wants—and I want you. And I'll get you, too—just like I get this kiss."
He suddenly snatched her toward him. A powerful man; she was wholly helpless in his grasp. His arms went about her and he pressed his lips to hers—three times. Then he released her, his eyes glowing like red coals.
But she was a northern girl, trained to self-defense. As he freed her, her strong, slender arm swung out and up—with really startling force. Her half-closed hand struck with a sharp, drawing motion across his lips, a blow that extinguished his laughter as the wind extinguishes a match-blaze.
The tempest of the forest was upon her, and her eyes blazed as she hastened around the house.
Jeffery Neilson and Chan Heminway were already in session when Ray Brent, his face flushed and his eyes still angry and red, joined them. Neilson was a tall, gaunt man, well past fifty—from his manner evidently the leader of the three. He had heavy, grizzled brows and rather quiet eyes, a man of deep passions and great resolve. Yet his lean face had nothing of the wickedness of Brent's. There had evidently been some gentling, redeeming influence in his life, and although it was not in the ascendancy, it had softened his smile and the hard lines about his lips. Notorious as he was through the northern provinces he was infinitely to be preferred to Chan Heminway, who sat at his left who, a weaker man than either Ray or Neilson, was simply a tool in the latter's hand,—a smashing sledge or a cruel blade as his master wished. He was vicious without strength, brutal without self-control. Locks of his blond hair, unkempt, dropped over his low forehead into his eyes.
"Where's Beatrice?" Neilson asked at once. "I thought I heard her voice."
Ray searched for a reply, and in the silence all three heard the girl's tread as she went around the house. "She's going in the back door. Likely she didn't want to disturb us."
Ray looked up to find Neilson's eyes firmly fixed upon his face. Try hard as he might he couldn't restrain a surge of color in his cheeks. "Yes, and what's the rest of it?" Neilson asked.
"Nothing—I know of."
"You've got some white marks on your cheeks—where it ain't red. The kid can slap, can't she—"
Ray flushed deeper, but the lines of Neilson's face began to deepen and draw. Then his voice broke in a great, hearty chuckle. He had evidently tried to restrain it—but it got away from him at last. No man could look at him, his twinkling eyes and his joyous face, and doubt but that this soft-eyed, strong-handed daughter of his was the joy and pride of his life. He had heard the ringing slap through the ramshackle walls of the house, and for all that he favored Ray as his daughter's suitor, the independence and spirit behind the action had delighted him to the core.
But Ray's sense of humor did not run along these lines. The first danger signal of rising anger leaped like a little, hot spark into his eyes. Many times before Ray had been obliged to curb his wrath against Neilson: to-night he found it more difficult than ever. The time would come, he felt, when he would no longer be obliged to submit to Neilson's dictation. Sometime the situation would be reversed; he would be leader instead of underling, taking the lion's share of the profit of their enterprises instead of the left-overs, and when that time came he would not be obliged to endure Neilson's jests in silence. Neilson himself, as he eyed the stiffening figure, had no realization of Ray's true attitude toward him. He thought him a willing helper, a loyal partner, and he would not have sat with such content in his chair if he could have beheld the smoldering fires of jealousy and ambition in the other's breasts The time would come when Ray would assert himself, he thought—when Beatrice was safe in his hands.
"It may seem like a joke to you, but it doesn't to me," he answered shortly. Nor was he able to keep his anger entirely from his voice. "Everything that girl does you think is perfect. Instead of encouraging her in her meanness you ought to help me out." His tones harshened, and he lost the fine edge of his self-control. "I've stood enough nonsense from that little—"
Seemingly, Neilson made no perceptible movement in his chair. What change there was showed merely in the lines of his face, and particularly in the light that dwelt in the gray, straightforward eyes. "Don't finish it," he ordered simply.
For an instant eyes met eyes in bitter hatred—and Chan Heminway began to wonder just where he would seek cover in case matters got to a shooting stage. But Ray's gaze broke before that of his leader. "I'm not going to say anything I shouldn't," he protested sullenly. "But this doesn't look like you're helping out my case any. You told me you'd do everything you could for me. You even went so far as to say you'd take matters in your own hands—"
"And I will, in reason. I'm keeping away the rest of the boys so you can have a chance. But if you think I'm going to tie her up to anybody against her will, you're barking up the wrong tree. She's my daughter, and her happiness happens to be my first object." Then his voice changed, good-humored again. "But cool down, boy—wait till you hear everything I've got to tell you, and you'll feel better. Of course, you know what it's about—"
"I suppose—Hiram Melville's claim."
"That's it. Of course we don't know that he had a claim—but he had a pocket full of the most beautiful nuggets you ever want to see. No one knows that fact but me—I saw 'em by accident—and I got 'em now. You know he's always had an idea that the Yuga country was worth prospecting, but we always laughed at him. Of course it is a pocket country; but it's my opinion he found a pocket that would make many a placer look sick, before he died."
"But he might have got the nuggets somewheres else—"
"Hold your horses. Where would he get 'em? There's something else suspicious too. He wrote a letter, the day before he died, and addressed it to Ezra Melville, somewhere in Oregon. He must just about got it by now—maybe a few days ago. He had the clerk mail it for him, and got him to witness it, saying it was his will—and what did that old hound have to will except a mine? Next day he wrote another letter somewhere too—but I didn't find out who it was to. If I'd had any gumption I'd got ahold of 'em both. The point is—I'm convinced it's worth a trip, at least."
"I should say it was worth a trip," Ray agreed. "And a fast one, too. There might be some competition—"
"There won't be a rush, if that's what you mean. Everybody knows it's a pocket country, and the men in this town wouldn't any more get excited about the Yuga River—"
"True enough—but that Ezra Melville will be showin' up one of these days. We want to be settin' pretty when he comes."
"You've got the idea. It ought to be the easiest job we ever did. It's my idea he had his claim all laid out, monuments up and everything, and was on his way down to Bradleyburg to record it when he died. He just went out before he could make the rest of the trip. All we'll have to do is go up there, locate in his cabin, and sit tight."
"Wait just a second." Ray was lost in thought. "There's an old cabin up that way somewhere—along that still place—on the river. It was a trapping cabin belonging to old Bill Foulks."
"That's true enough—but it likely ain't near his mine. Boys, it's a clean, open-and-shut job—with absolutely nothing to interfere. If his brother does come up, he'll find us in possession—and nothing to do but go back. So to-morrow we'll load up and pack horses and light out."
"Up Poor Man creek, through Spruce Pass—"
"Sure. Then over to the Yuga. Old Hiram was hunting down some kind of a scent in the vicinity of that old cabin you speak of, last heard of him. And I wouldn't be surprised, on second thought, if it wasn't his base of operations."
"All easy enough," Ray agreed. He paused, and a queer, speculative look came into his wild-beast's eyes. "But what I don't see—how you can figure all this is going to help me out with Beatrice."
Jeffery Neilson turned in his chair. "You can't, eh? You need spectacles. Just think a minute—say you had fifty or sixty thousand all your own—to spend on a wife and buy her clothes and automobiles. Don't you think that would make you more attractive to the feminine eye?"
At first Ray made no apparent answer. He merely sat staring ahead. But plainly the words had wakened riot in his imagination. Such a sum meant wealth, the power his ambitious nature had always craved, idleness and the gratification of all his lusts. He was no stranger to greed, this degenerate son of the North. "It'd help some," he admitted in a low voice. "But what makes you think it would be worth that much?"
"Because old Hiram talked a little, half-delirious, before he died. 'A quarter of a million,' he kept saying. 'Right there in sight—a quarter of a million.' If he really found that much stowed away in the rocks, that's fifty or sixty apiece for you and Chan."
Ray's mind worked swiftly. Sixty thousand apiece—and that left one hundred and thirty thousand for their leader's portion. The old rage and jealousy that had preyed upon his mind so long swept over him, more compelling than ever. "Go on," he urged. "What's the rest of it?"
"The second thing is—we'll need some one to cook, and look after us, when we get up there. Who should it be but Beatrice? She wouldn't want to stay here; you know how she loves the woods. And if you know anything about girls, you know that nothing counts like having 'em alone. There wouldn't be any of the other boys up there to trouble you. You'd have a clear field."
Ray's dark eyes shone. "It'd help some," he admitted. "That means—hunt up an extra horse for her to-morrow."
"No. I don't intend she should come up now. Not till we're settled."
"Think a minute, and you'll see why not. You know how she regards this business of jumping claims. She's dead against it if any one could be—bless her heart!"
"Don't go getting sentimental, Neilson."
"And don't let that mouth of yours get you into trouble, either." Once more their eyes locked: once more Ray looked away. "I hope she'll always stay that way, too. As I say, she's dead against it, and she's been a little suspicious ever since that Jenkins deal. Besides, it wouldn't be any pleasure for her until we find a claim and get settled. When she comes up we'll be established in a couple of cabins—one for her and me and one for you two—and she won't know but that we made the original find."
"How will she know just where to find us?"
"We're bound to be somewhere near that old cabin on the Yuga. We'll set a date for her to come, and I can meet her there."
It was, Ray was forced to admit, a highly commendable scheme. He sat back, contemplating all its phases. "It's slick enough," he agreed. "It ought to do the trick."
But if he had known the girl's thoughts, as she sat alone in the back part of the house, he wouldn't have felt so confident. She was watching the moon over the spruce forest, and she was thinking, with repugnance in her heart, of the indignity to which she had been subjected at her father's door. Yet the kisses Ray had forced on her were no worse than his blasphemy of her dreams. The spirit of romance was abroad to-night—in the enchantment of the moon—and she was wistful and imaginative as never before. This was just the normal expression of her starved girlhood—the same childlike wistfulness with which a Cinderella might long for her prince—just as natural and as wholesome and as much a part of youth as laughter and happiness.
"I won't believe him, I won't believe him," she told herself. Her thought turned to other channels, and her heart spoke its wish. "Wherever he is—sometime he'll come to me."
At a little town at the end of steel Ben and Ezram ended the first lap of their journey. They had had good traveling these past days. Steadily they had gone north, through the tilled lands of Northern Washington, through the fertile valleys of lower British Columbia, traversing great mountain ranges and penetrating gloomy forests, and now had come to the bank of a north-flowing river,—a veritable flood and one of the monarch rivers of the North. Every hour their companionship had been more close and their hopes higher. Every waking moment Ben had been swept with thankfulness for the chance that had come to him.
They had worked for their meals and passage—hard, manual toil—but it had seemed only play to them both. Sometimes they mended fence, sometimes helped at farm labor, and one gala morning, with entire good will and cheer, they beat into cleanliness every carpet in a widow's cottage. And the sign of the outcast was fading from Ben's flesh.
The change was marked in his face. His eye seemed more clear and steadfast, his lips more firm, the lines of his face were not so hard and deep. His fellows of the underworld would have scarcely known him now,—his lips and chin darkening with beard and this new air of self-respect upon him. Perhaps they had forgotten him, but it was no less than he had done to them. The prison walls seemed already as if they hadn't been true. He loved every minute of the journey, freshness instead of filth, freedom instead of confinement, fragrant fields and blossoming flowers. Ever the stars and the moon, remembered of old, yielded him a peace and happiness beyond his power to tell. And his gratitude to Ezram grew apace.
Besides self-confidence and the constant, slow unraveling of his memory problems, each day yielded rich gifts: no less than added trust in each other. Always they found each other steadfast, utterly to be relied upon. Ezram never regretted for a moment his offer to Ben. The young man had seemingly developed under his eye and was a real aid to him in all the problems of the journey.
As the days passed, the whole tone and key of the land had seemed to change. They were full in the mountains now, snow gleaming on the heights, forests blue-black on the slopes; and Ben's response was a growing excitement that at first he could not analyze. The air was sweeter, more bracing, and sometimes he discerned a fleeting, delicate odor that drew him up short in his talk and held him entranced. There was a sparkle and stir in the air, unknown in the cities he had left; and to breathe it deeply thrilled him with an unexplainable happiness.
Some way it was all familiar, all dear to him as if it had once been close to his life. The sparkle in the air was not new, only recalled: long and long ago he had wakened to find just such a delicate fragrance in his nostrils. But the key hadn't come to him yet. His memory pictures were ever stronger of outline, clearer in his mind's eye, yet they were still too dim for him to interpret them. In these days Ezram watched him closely, with a curious, intense interest.
It was no longer pleasant to sleep out in the hay. For the sake of warmth alone they were obliged to hire their night's lodging at cheap hotels. Spring was full in the land they had left: it was just beginning here. The mountains, visible from the village of Saltsville where they left the railroad, were still swept with snow.
Ben felt that he would have liked to take a day off at this point and venture with his companion into the high, wooded hills that fronted the town, but he agreed with Ezram that they could not spare the time. They swiftly made preparations for their journey down-river. A canoe was bought for a reasonable sum—they were told they had a good chance of selling it again when they left the river near Snowy Gulch—and at the general store they bought an axe, rudimentary fishing tackle, tobacco, blankets, and all manner of simpler provisions, such as flour, rice, bacon, coffee, canned milk, and sugar. And for a ridiculously small sum which he mysteriously produced from the pocket of his faded jeans Ezram bought a second-hand rifle—an ancient gun of large caliber but of enduring quality—and a box of shells to match.
"Old Hiram left me a gun, but we'll each need one," Ezram explained. "And they tell me there's a chance to pick up game, like as not, goin' down the river."
They would have need of good canoe-craft before the journey's end, the villagers told them. Ezram had not boasted of any such ability, and at first Ben regarded the plan with considerable misgivings. And it was with the most profound amazement that, when they pushed off, he saw Ezram deliberately seat himself in the bow, leaving the more important place to his young companion.
"Good heavens, I'll capsize you in a minute," Ben said. "How do you dare risk it——"
"Push off and stop botherin' me," Ezram answered. "There's a paddle—go ahead and shoot 'er."
The waters caught the canoe, speeding it downstream; and in apprehension of immediate disaster Ben seized the paddle. Swiftly he thrust it into the streaming water at his side.
He was not further aware of Ezram's searching gaze. He did not know of the old man's delight at the entire incident—first the anxious, hurried stroke of the paddle, then the movement of Ben's long fingers as he caught a new hold, finally the white flame of exultation that came into his face. For himself, Ben instantly knew that this was his own sphere. He suddenly found himself an absolute master of his craft: at the touch of the paddle controlling it as a master mechanic controls a delicate machine.
The white waters were no more to be feared. He found that he knew, as if by instinct, every trick of the riverman's trade,—the slow stroke, the fast stroke, the best stroke for a long day's sail, the little half-turn in his hands that put the blade on edge in the water and gave him the finest control. It was all so familiar, so unspeakably dear to him. Clear, bright memories hovered close to him, almost within his grasp.
"Do you remember when you shot the Athabaska Rapids?" Ezram had asked. It was all clear enough. In that life that was forgotten he had evidently lived much in a canoe, knowing every detail of river life. Perhaps he had been a master canoeist; at least he felt a strange, surging sense of self-confidence and power. He understood, now, why the image of rushing waters had come so often into his dreams. Dim pictures of river scenes—cataracts white with foam, rapids with thunderous voices, perilous eddies, and then, just beyond, glassy waters where the shadow of the canoe was unbroken in the blue depths—streamed through his mind, but they were not yet bright enough for him to seize and hold.
He enjoyed the first few hours of paddling, but in the long, warm afternoon came indolence, and they were both willing to glide with the current and watch the ever-changing vista of the shore. For the first time since they had come into the real North, Ben found opportunity to observe and study the country.
Already they were out of sight of the last vestige of a habitation; and the evergreen forests pushed down to the water's edge. From the middle of the stream the woods appeared only as a dark wall, but this was immeasurably fascinating to Ben. It suggested mystery, adventure; yet its deeper appeal, the thing that stirred him and thrilled him to the quick, he could neither understand nor analyze.
Sometimes a little clump of trees stood apart, and from their shape he identified them as the incomparable spruce, perhaps the most distinguished and beautiful of all the evergreens. He marked their great height, their slender forms, their dark foliage that ever seemed to be silvered with frost; and they seemed to him to answer, to the fullest extent, some vague expectation of which he had scarcely been aware.
The wild life of the river filled him with speechless delight. Sometimes he saw the waters break and gleam at the leap of a mighty salmon—the king fish of the North on his spring rush to the headwaters where he would spawn and die—and often the canoe sent flocks of waterfowl into flight. Ben dimly felt that on the tree-clad shores larger, more glorious living creatures were standing, hiding, watching the canoe glide past. The thought thrilled him.
Late afternoon, and they worked closer to the shore. They were watching for a place to land. But because the shadows of twilight were already falling, the forest itself was hardly more vivid to their eyes. Once it seemed to Ben that he saw the underbrush move and waver at the water's edge, and his heart leaped; but whatever stirred kept itself concealed. And now, in the gray of twilight, Ezram saw the place to land.
It was a small lagoon into which a creek emptied, and beyond was an open meadow, found so often and so unexpectedly in the North woods. Swiftly Ben turned the canoe into shore.
Ezram climbed out and made fast, and so busy was he with his work that he did not glance at Ben, otherwise he might have beheld a phenomenon that would have been of keen interest to the alienist, Forest. His young charge had suddenly grown quite pale. Ben himself was neither aware of this nor of the fact that his heart was hammering wildly in his breast and his blood racing, like wild rivers, through his veins: he was only thrilled and held by a sense of vast, impending developments. Every nerve tingled and thrilled, and why he did not know.
Ezram began to unload; but now, his blue eyes shining, he began a covert watch of his young companion. He saw the man from prison suddenly catch his breath in inexpressible awe and his eye kindle with a light of unknown source. A great question was shaping itself in Ben's mind, but as yet he could not find the answer.
All at once Ben knew this place. Here was nothing strange or new: it was all as he had known it would be in his inmost heart. All of it spoke to him with familiar voice, seemingly to welcome him as a son is welcomed after long absence. There was nothing here that had not been known and beloved of old. Vivid memories, bright as lightning, swept through him.
He had always known this wholesome, sweet breath that swept into his face. It was merely that of the outdoors, the open places that were his own haunts. It was wholly fitting and true that the silence should lie over the dark spruce that ringed about him, a silence that, in its infinite harmony with some queer mood of silence in his own heart, was more moving than any voice. All was as he had secretly known: the hushed tree aisles, the gray radiance—soft as a hand upon the brow—of the afterglow; the all-pervading health and peace of the wilderness. Except for an old and trusted companion, he was alone with it all, and that too was as it should be. Just he and the forest, his companion and the gliding river.
He didn't try to understand, at first, the joy and the wonder that thrilled him, nor could he speak aloud the thoughts that came to him. Ravished and mystified, he walked softly to the dark, still edge of the forest, penetrated it a distance, then sat down to wait.
For the first time in years, it seemed to him, he was at peace. A strange sense of self-realization—lost to him in his years of exile—climbed like fire through him; and with it the return of a lost virility, a supreme vigor tingling each little nerve; a sense of strength and power that was almost blinding.
He sat still. He saw the twilight descending, ever heavier, over the forest. The sharp edges of the individual trees faded and blended, the trunks blurred. He turned one fleeting glance of infinite, inexpressible gratitude toward Ezram—the man who had brought him here and who now was busily engaged in unpacking the canoe and making camp—then looked back to his forests. The wind brought the wood smells,—spruce and moldering earth and a thousand more no man could name. The great, watchful, brooding spirit of the forest went in to him.
All at once his heart seemed to pause in his breast. He was listening,—for what he did not know. His eyes strained into the shadows. Brush wavered, a twig cracked with a miniature explosion. And then two figures emerged into the beaver meadow opposite him.
They were only creatures of the wild, an old cow moose, black and ungainly, and her long-legged, awkward calf. Yet they supplied the detail that was missing. They were the one thing needed to complete the picture—the crowning touch that revealed this land as it was—the virgin wilderness where the creatures of the wild still held full sway.
But it did more. All at once a great clarity seemed to take possession of his mind. Here, in these dark forests, were the stimuli of which Forest, the alienist, had spoken; and his brain seemed to leap, as in one impulse, to the truth. Suddenly he knew the answer to all the questions and problems that had troubled him so long.
Many times, in the past years, he had seen logs jammed in the water, a veritable labyrinth that defied dissolution. Suddenly, as if by magic, the key log would be ejected, and the whole jam would break, shatter down in one stupendous crash, settle and dissolve, leaving at last only drift logs floating quietly in the river. Thus it was with the confusion in his brain. All at once it seemed to dissolve, the tangled skeins straightened out, the association areas of his mind stirred full into life once more. As he sat there, pale as the twilight sky, the mists of amnesia lifted from him. He was cured as if by the touch of a holy man.
No wonder these forests depths were familiar. His boyhood and early manhood, clear until the vortex of war had engulfed him, had been spent amid just such surroundings, in just such silences, on the banks of just such wilderness rivers. The same sky line of dark, heaven-reaching spruce had fronted him of old. He sprang up, his eyes blazing. "I remember everything," an inaudible voice spoke within him. Then he whispered, fervently, to his familiar wilds. "And I have come home."
Everything was as it should be, as he and Ezram made the camp. He himself cut the boughs for their beds, laid them with his remembered skill, spread the blankets, and kept the fire blazing while Ezram cooked; afterwards he knew the indescribable peace of a pipe smoke beside the glowing coals. He saw the moon come up at last, translating the spruce forest into a fairy land.
Of course he had remembered the moon. How many times had he watched for its argent gleam on the sky line, the vivid, detailed silhouette of the spruce against it; and then its slow-spreading glory through the still, dark forests! The spires of the trees grew ensilvered, as always; immense nebulous patches lay between the trunks, shadows stole mysteriously, phantoms met, lingered, and vanished.
This was his own North! The stir and vigor in the very air told him that. This was the land he had dreamed of, under the moon; the primeval forests that had tried him, tested him, staked their cruel might against him, but yet had blessed him with their infinite beneficence and hospitality. It was ever somber, yet its dusky beauty stirred him more than any richness he had seen in bright cities. He knew its every mood: ecstasy in spring; gentleness in summer; brooding melancholy in the gray days of fall; remorseless, savage, but unspeakably beautiful in the winter. He felt his old pity for the spring flowers, blossoming so hopefully in this gentle season. How soon they would be covered with many feet of snow!
"It's all come clear again," he told Ezram. And the two men talked over, quietly and happily, old days at Thunder Lake. He remembered now that Ezram had always been the most intimate friend of his own family: a spry old godfather to himself and young sister, a boon companion to his once successful rival, Ben's father. Ben did not wonder, now, at his own perplexity when Forest had spoken of "Wolf" Darby. That was his own name known throughout hundreds of square miles of forest and in dozens of little river hamlets in an Eastern province. Partly the name was in token of his skill as a woodsman and frontiersman, partly in recognition of certain traits that his fellow woodsmen had seen and wondered at in him. It was not an empty nickname, in his case. It was simply that the name suited him.
"The boys had reason a-plenty for callin' you that," Ezram told him. "Up here, as you know, men don't get no complimentary epithets unless they deserve 'em. Some men, Ben, are like weasels. You've seen 'em. You've seen human rats, too. As if the souls they carried around with 'em was the souls of rats. Of course you remember 'Grizzly' Silverdale? Did you ever see any one who in disposition and looks and walk and everything reminded you so much of a grizzly bear? I've known men like sheep, and men with the faithful souls of dogs. You remember when you got in the big fight in the Le Perray bar?"
"I don't think I'll ever forget it again."
"That's the night the name came on you, to stay. You remember how you'd drive into one of them, leap away, then tear into another. Like a wolf for all the world! You was always hard to get into a fight, but you know as well as I do, and I ain't salvin' you when I say it, that you're the most terrible, ferocious fighter, forgettin' everything but blood, that ever paddled a canoe on the Athabaska. Some men, Ben, seem to have the spirit of the wolf right under their skins, a sort of a wild instinct that might have come straight down from the stone age, for all I know. You happen to be one of 'em, the worst I ever saw. Maybe you don't remember, but you took your bull moose before you was thirteen years old."
Ben sat dreaming. The Athabaska Rapids was not an empty name to him now. He remembered the day he had won the canoe race at Lodge Pole. Other exploits occurred to him,—of brutal, savage brawls in river taverns, of adventures on the trail, of struggling with wild rivers when his canoe capsized, of running the great logs down through white waters. It was his world, these far-stretching wildernesses. And he blessed, with all the fervency of his heart, the man who had brought him home.
He went to his bed, but sleep did not at once come to him. He lay with hushed breathing, listening to the little, secret noises, known so well, of the wilderness night. He heard the wild creatures start forth on their midnight journeys. Once a lynx mewed at the edge of the forest; and he laughed aloud when some large creature—probably a moose—grunted and splashed water in the near-by beaver meadow.
Thus ended the first of a brilliant succession of joyous days, descending the stream in the daylight hours and camping on the bank at night. Every day they plunged deeper into the heart of the wilderness, and every hour Ben felt more at home.
It was only play for him,—to meet and shoot successfully the rapids of the river. In the long stillnesses he paddled hour upon hour, not only to make time but to find an outlet for his surging energy. His old-time woodsman's pleasures were recalled again: shooting waterfowl for their mess in the still dawns, racing the swimming moose when they ran on him in the water. One day, fish hungry, he rigged up the elementary fishing tackle that they had brought from Saltsville and tried for a salmon.
To a long, tough rod cut on the river bank he attached thirty feet of cheap, white cord, and to the cord he fastened a bright spoon hook—the spinner that salmon fishers know. He had no leader, no reel, no delicately balanced salmon rod—and Ezram was full of scorn for the whole proceeding. And it was certainly true that, by all the rules of angling, Ben had no chance whatever to get a bite.
The cord was visible in the clear water, and the spoon itself was scarcely more than twenty feet from the rear of the boat. But this northern stream was not at all like the famous salmon rivers known to sportsmen. In years to come, when the lines of communication are better and tourist hotels are established on its banks, the river may then begin to conform to the qualifications of a conventional fishing stream, and then Ben's crude tackle will be unavailing. But at present the salmon were not so particular. As fishermen came but rarely, the fish were in countless numbers; and in such a galaxy there were bound to be few misguided fish that did not know a sportsman's tackle from a dub's.
The joy of angling, once known, dwells in the body until death, and Ben was a born fisherman. The old delight that can never die crept back to him the instant he felt the clumsy rod in his hands and the faint throb of the line through the delicate mechanism of his nerves. And apparently for no other reason than that the river hordes wished to welcome him home, almost at once a gigantic bull salmon took his spoon.
Ezram's first knowledge of it was a wild yell that almost startled him over the side—the same violent outcry that old anglers still can not restrain when the fish takes hold, even after a lifetime of angling. When he recovered himself he looked to see Ben kneeling frantically in the stern, hanging for dear life to his rod and seemingly in grave danger of being pulled overboard.
No man who has felt that first, overpowering jolt of a striking salmon can question the rapture of that first moment. The jolt carried through all the intricacies of the nerves, jarred the soul within the man, and seemingly registered in the germ plasm itself an impression that could be recalled, in dreams, ten generations hence. Fortunately the pole withstood that first, frantic rush, and then things began to happen in earnest.
The great trout seemed to dance on the surface of the water. He tugged, he swam in frantic circles, he flopped and darted and sulked and rushed and leaped. If he hadn't been securely hooked, and if it had not been for a skill earned in a hundred such battles, Ben would not have held him a moment.
But the time came at last, after a sublime half-hour, when his steam began to die. His rushes were less powerful, and often he hung like a dead weight on the line. Slowly Ben worked him in, not daring to believe that he was conquering, willing to sell his soul for the privilege of seeing the great fish safe in the boat. His eyes protruded, perspiration gleamed on his brow, he talked foolishly and incessantly to Ezram, the fish, the river-gods, and himself. Ezram, something of an old Isaac Walton himself, managed the canoe with unusual dexterity and chuckled in the contagion of Ben's delight. And lo—in a moment more the thing was done.