The Chalice Of Courage: A Romance of Colorado
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Entering the main room he led her gently to one of the chairs near the table and immediately thereafter lighted the fire which he had taken the precaution to lay before his departure. It had been dark in the cabin, but the fire soon filled it with glorious light. She watched him at his task and as he rose from the hearth questioned him.
"Now tell me," she began, "you found – "
"First your supper, and then the story," he answered, turning toward the door of the other room.
"No," pleaded the girl, "can't you see that nothing is of any importance to me but the story? Did you find the camp?"
"I found the place where it had been."
"Where it had been!"
"There wasn't a single vestige of it left. That whole pocket, I knew it well, had been swept clean by the flood."
"But Kirkby, and Mrs. Maitland and – "
"They weren't there."
"Did you search for them?"
"But they can't have been drowned," she exclaimed piteously.
"Of course not," he began reassuringly. "Kirkby is a veteran of these mountains and – "
"But do you know him?" queried the girl in great surprise.
"I did once," said the man, flushing darkly at his admission. "I haven't seen him for five years."
So that was the measure of his isolation, thought the woman, keen for the slightest evidence as to her companion's history, of which, by the way, he meant to tell her nothing.
"Well?" she asked, breaking the pause.
"Kirkby would certainly see the cloudburst coming and he would take the people with him in the camp up on the hogback near it. It is far above the flood line, they would be quite safe there."
"And did you look for them there?"
"I did. The trail had been washed out, but I scrambled up and found undisputed evidence that my surmise was correct. I haven't a doubt that all who were in the camp were saved."
"Thank God for that," said the girl, greatly relieved and comforted by his reassuring words. "And my uncle, Mr. Robert Maitland, and the rest on the mountain, what do you think of them?"
"I am sure that they must have escaped too. I don't think any of them have suffered more than a thorough drenching in the downpour and that they are all safe and perhaps on their way to the settlements now."
"But they wouldn't go back without searching for me, would they?" cried the girl.
"Certainly not, I suppose they are searching for you now."
"Well then – "
"Wait," said the man. "You started down the ca?on, you told everybody that you were going that way. They naturally searched in that direction; they hadn't the faintest idea that you were going up the river."
"No," admitted Enid, "that is true. I did not tell anyone. I didn't dream of going up the ca?on when I started out in the morning; it was the result of a sudden impulse."
"God bless that – " burst out the man and then he checked himself, flushing again, darkly.
What had he been about to say? The question flashed into his own mind and into the woman's mind at the same time when she heard, the incompleted sentence; but she, too, checked the question that rose to her lips.
"This is the way I figure it," continued the man hurriedly to cover up his confusion."They fancy themselves alone in these mountains, which save for me they are; they believe you to have gone down the ca?on. Kirkby with Mrs. Maitland and the others waited on the ridge until Mr. Maitland and his party joined them. They couldn't have saved very much to eat or wear from the camp, they were miles from a settlement, they probably divided into two parties; the larger with the woman and children started for home, the second went down the ca?on searching for your dead body!"
"And had it not been for you," cried the girl impulsively, "they had found it."
"God permitted me to be of service to you," answered the man simply. "I can follow their speculations exactly; up or down, they believed you to have been in the ca?on when the storm broke, therefore there was only one place and one direction to search for you."
"And that was?"
"Down the ca?on."
"What did you do then?"
"I went down the ca?on myself. I think I saw evidences that someone had preceded me, too."
"Did you overtake them!"
"Certainly not; they traveled as rapidly as I, they must have started early in the morning and they had several hours the advantage of me."
"But they must have stopped somewhere for the night and – "
"Yes," answered the man. "If I had had only myself to consider, I should have pressed on through the night and overtaken them when they camped."
"You made me promise to return here by nightfall. I don't know whether I should have obeyed you or not. I kept on as long as I dared and still leave myself time to get back to you by dark."
She had no idea of the desperate speed he had made to reach her while it was still daylight.
"If you hadn't come when you did, I should have died," cried the girl impetuously. "You did perfectly right. I don't think I am a coward, I hope not, I never was afraid before, but – "
"Don't apologize or explain to me, it's not necessary; I understand everything you feel. It was only because I had given you my word to be back by sunset that I left off following their trail. I was afraid that you might think me dead or that something had happened and – "
"I should, I did," admitted the girl. "It wasn't so bad during the day time, but when the sun went down and you did not come I began to imagine everything. I saw myself left alone here in these mountains, helpless, wounded, without a human being to speak to. I could not bear it."
"But I have been here alone for five years," said the man grimly.
"That's different. I don't know why you have chosen solitude, but I – "
"You are a woman," returned the other gently, "and you have suffered, that accounts for everything."
"Thank you," said Enid gratefully. "And I am so glad you came back to me."
"Back to you," reiterated the man and then he stopped. If he had allowed his heart to speak he would have said, back to you from the very ends of the world – "But I want you to believe that I honestly did not leave the trail until the ultimate moment," he added.
"I do believe it," she extended her hand to him. "You have been very good to me, I trust you absolutely."
And for the second time he took that graceful, dainty, aristocratic hand in his own larger, stronger, firmer grasp. His face flushed again; under other circumstances and in other days perhaps he might have kissed that hand; as it was he only held it for a moment and then gently released it.
"And you think they are searching for me?" she asked.
"I know it. I am sure of what I myself would do for one I love – I loved I mean, and they – "
"And they will find me?"
The man shook his head.
"I am afraid they will be convinced that you have gone down with the flood. Didn't you have a cap or – "
"Yes," said the woman, "and a sweater. The bear you shot covered the sweater with blood. I could not put it on again."
As she spoke she flushed a glorious crimson at the remembrance of that meeting, but the man was looking away with studied care. She thanked him in her heart for such generous and kindly consideration.
"They will have gone down the stream with the rest, and it's just possible that the searchers may find them, the body of the bear too. This river ends in a deep mountain lake and I think it is going to snow, it will be frozen hard to-morrow."
"And they will think me – there?"
"I am afraid so."
"And they won't come up here?"
"It is scarcely possible."
"Oh!" exclaimed the woman faintly at the dire possibility that she might not be found.
"I took an empty bottle with me," said the man, breaking the silence, "in which I had enclosed a paper saying that you were here and safe, save for your wounded foot, and giving directions how to reach the place. I built a cairn of rocks in a sheltered nook in the valley where your camp had been pitched and left the tightly corked bottle wedged on top of it. If they return to the camp they can scarcely fail to see it."
"But if they don't go back there."
"Well, it was just a chance."
"And if they don't find me?"
"You will have to stay here for a while; until your foot gets well enough to travel," returned the man evasively.
"But winter is coming on, you said the lake would freeze to-night, and if it snows?"
"It will snow."
The woman stared at him, appalled.
"And in that case – "
"I am afraid," was the slow reply, "that you will have to stay here" – he hesitated in the face of her white still face – "all winter," he added desperately.
"Alone!" exclaimed the girl faintly. "With you?"
"Miss Maitland," said the man resolutely, "I might as well tell you the truth. I can make my way to the settlements now or later, but it will be a journey of perhaps a week. There will be no danger to me, but you will have to stay here. You could not go with me. If I am any judge you couldn't possibly use your foot for a mountain journey for at least three weeks, and by that time we shall be snowed in as effectually as if we were within the Arctic Circle. But if you will let me go alone to the settlement I can bring back your uncle, and a woman to keep you company, before the trails are impassable. Or enough men to make it practicable to take you through the ca?ons and down the trails to your home again. I could not do that alone even if you were well, in the depth of the winter."
The girl shook her head stubbornly.
"A week alone in these mountains and I should be mad," she said decisively. "It isn't to be thought of."
"It must be thought of," urged the man. "You don't understand. It is either that or spend the winter here – with me."
The woman looked at him steadily.
"And what have I to fear from you?" she asked.
"Nothing, nothing," protested the other, "but the world?"
"The world," said the woman reflectively. "I don't mean to say that it means nothing to me, but it has cause enough for what it would fain say now." She came to her decision swiftly. "There is no help for it," she continued; "we are marooned together." She smiled faintly as she used the old word of tropic island and southern sea. "You have shown me that you are a man and a gentleman, in God and you I put my trust. When my foot gets well, if you can teach me to walk on snow shoes and it is possible to get through the passes, we will try to go back; if not, we must wait."
"The decision is yours," said the man, "yet I feel that I ought to point out to you how – "
"I see all that you see," she interrupted. "I know what is in your mind, it is entirely clear to me, we can do nothing else."
"So be it. You need have no apprehension as to your material comfort; I have lived in these mountains for a long time, I am prepared for any emergency, I pass my time in the summer getting ready for the winter. There is a cave, or recess rather, behind the house which, as you see, is built against the rock wall, and it is filled with wood enough to keep us warm for two or three winters; I have an ample supply of provisions and clothing for my own needs, but you will need something warmer than that you wear," he continued.
"Have you needle and thread and cloth?" she asked.
"Everything," was the prompt answer.
"Then I shall not suffer."
"Are you that wonder of wonders," asked the man, smiling slightly, "an educated woman who knows how to sew?"
"It is a tradition of Philadelphia," answered the girl, "that her daughters should be expert needlewomen."
"Oh, you are from Philadelphia."
"Yes, and you?"
She threw the question at him so deftly and so quickly that she caught him unaware and off his guard a second time within the hour.
"Baltimore," he answered before he thought and then bit his lip.
He had determined to vouchsafe her no information regarding himself and here she had surprised him into an admission in the first blush of their acquaintance, and she knew that she had triumphed for she smiled in recognition of it.
She tried another tack.
"Mr. Newbold," she began at a venture, and as it was five years since he had heard that name, his surprise at her knowledge, which after all was very simple, betrayed him a third time. "We are like stories I have read, people who have been cast away on desert islands and – "
"Yes," said the man, "but no castaways that I have ever read of have been so bountifully provided with everything necessary to the comfort of life as we are. I told you I lacked nothing for your material welfare, and even your mind need not stagnate."
"I have looked at your books already," said the woman, answering his glance.
This was where she had found his name he realized.
"You will have this room for your own use and I will take the other for mine," he continued.
"I am loath to dispossess you."
"I shall be quite comfortable there, and this shall be your room exclusively except when you bid me enter, as when I bring you your meals; otherwise I shall hold it inviolate."
"But," said the woman, "there must be an equal division of labor, I must do my share."
"There isn't much to do in the winter, except to take care of the burros, keep up the fire and prepare what we have to eat."
"I am afraid I should be unequal to outdoor work, but in the rest I must do my part."
He recognized at once that idleness would be irksome.
"So you shall," he assented heartily, "when your foot is well enough to make you an efficient member of our little society."
"Thank you, and now – "
"Is there anything else before I get supper?"
"You think there is no hope of their searching for me here?"
The man shook his head.
"If James Armstrong had been in the party," she said reflectively, "I am sure he would never have given up."
"And who is James Armstrong, may I ask?" burst forth the other bluntly.
"Why he – I – he is a friend of my uncle's and an – acquaintance of my own."
"Oh," said the man shortly and gloomily, as he turned away.
Enid Maitland had been very brave in his presence, but when he went out she put her head down on her arms on the table and cried softly to herself. Was ever a woman in such a predicament, thrown into the arms of a man who had established every conceivable claim upon her gratitude, forced to live with him shut up in a two-room log cabin upon a lonely mountain range, surrounded by lofty and inaccessible peaks, pierced by terrific gorges soon to be impassable from the snows? She had read many stories of castaways from Charles Reade's famous "Foul Play" down to more modern instances, but in those cases there had always been an island comparatively large over which to range, with privacy, seclusion, opportunity for withdrawal; bright heavens, balmy breezes, idyllic conditions. Here were two uplifted from the earth upon a sky-piercing mountain; they would have had more range of action and more liberty of motion if they had been upon a derelict in the ocean.
And she realized at the same time that in all those stories the two castaways always loved each other. Would it be so with them? Was it so! And again the hot flame within outvied the fire on the hearth as the blood rushed to the smooth surface of her cheek again.
What would her father say if he could know her position, what would the world say, and above all what would Armstrong say? It cannot be denied that her thoughts were terribly and overwhelmingly dismayed, and yet that despair was not without a certain relief. No man had ever so interested her as this one. What was the mystery of his life, why was he there, what had he meant when he had blessed the idle impulse that had sent her into his arms?
Her heart throbbed again. She lifted her face from her hands and dried her tears, a warm glow stole over her and once again not altogether from the fire. Who and what was this man? Who was that woman whose picture he had taken from her? Well, she would have time to find out. And meantime the world outside could think and do what it pleased. She sat staring into the firelight, seeing pictures there, dreaming dreams. She was as lovely as an angel to the man when he came back into the room.