The Chalice Of Courage: A Romance of Colorado
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Other women he had seen at a distance and avoided in his yearly visits to the settlements of course; these had passed him by remotely, but here he was brought in touch intimately with humanity. He who had taken life had saved it. A woman had sent him forth, was a woman to call him back?
He cursed himself for his weakness. He shut his eyes and summoned other memories. How long he stood there he could not have told; he was fighting a battle and it seemed to him at last that he triumphed. Presently the consciousness came to him that perhaps he had no right to stand there idle, it might be that the woman needed him, perhaps she had fainted in the water, perhaps – He turned toward the bend which concealed him from her and then he stopped. Had he any right to intrude upon her privacy? He must of necessity be an unwelcome visitor to her, he had surprised her at a frightful disadvantage; he knew instinctively, although the fault was none of his, although he had saved her life thereby, that she would hold him and him alone responsible for the outrage to her modesty, and although he had seen little at first glance and had resolutely kept his eyes away, the mere consciousness of her absolute helplessness appealed to him – to what was best and noblest in him, too. He must go to her. Stay, she might not yet be clothed, in which event – But no, she must be dressed, or dead, by this time and in either case he would have a duty to discharge.
It devolved upon him to make sure of her safety, he was in a certain sense responsible for it, until she got back to her friends wherever they might be; but he persuaded himself that otherwise he did not want to see her again, that he did not wish to know anything about her future; that he did not care whether it was well or ill with her; and it was only stern obligation which drove him toward her – oh fond and foolish man!
He compromised with himself at last by climbing the ridge that had shut off a view of the pool, and looking down at the place so memorable to him. He was prepared to withdraw instantly should circumstances warrant, and he was careful so to conceal himself as to give no possible opportunity for her to discover his scrutiny.
With a beating heart and eager eyes he searched the spot. There lay the bear and a little distance away prone on the grass, clothed but whether in her right mind or not he could not tell, lay the woman. For a moment, as he bent a concentrated eager gaze upon her, he thought she might have fainted or that she might have died. In any event he reflected that she had strength and nerve and will to have dressed herself before either of these things had happened. She lay motionless under his gaze for so long that he finally made up his mind that common humanity required him to go to her assistance.
He rose to his feet on the instant and saw the woman also lift herself from the grass as if moved by a similar impulse. In his intense preoccupation he had failed to observe the signs of the times.A sense of the overcast sky came to him suddenly, as it did to her, but with a difference. He knew what was about to happen, his experience told him much more as to the awful potentialities of the tempest than she could possibly imagine. She must be warned at once, she must leave the ca?on and get up on the higher ground without delay. His duty was plain and yet he did it not. He could not. The pressure upon him was not yet strong enough.
A half dozen times as he watched her deliberately sitting there eating, he opened his mouth to cry to her, yet he could not bring himself to it. A strange timidity oppressed him, halted him, held him back. A man cannot stay away five years from men and woman and be himself with them in the twinkling of an eye. And when to that instinctive and acquired reluctance against which he struggled in vain, he added the assurance that whatever his message he would be unwelcome on account of what had gone before, he could not force himself to go to her or even to call to her, not yet. He would keep her under surveillance, however, and if the worst came he could intervene in time to rescue her. He counted without his cost, his usual judgment bewildered. So he followed her through the trees and down the bank.
Now he was so engrossed in her and so agitated that his caution slept, his experience was forgotten. The storm in his own breast was so great that it overshadowed the storm brewing above. Her way was easier than his and he had fallen some distance behind when suddenly there rushed upon him the fact that a frightful and unlooked for cloudburst was about to occur above their heads. A lightning flash and a thunder clap at last arrested his attention. Then, but not until then, he flung everything to the winds and amid the sudden and almost continuous peals of thunder he sent cry after cry toward her which were lost in the tremendous diapason of sound that echoed and re-echoed through the rifts of the mountains.
"Wait," he cried again and again. "Come up higher. Get out of the ca?on. You'll be drowned."
But he had waited too long, the storm had developed too rapidly, she was too far ahead of and beneath him. She heard nothing but the sound of a voice, shrill, menacing, fraught with terror for her, not a word distinguishable; scarcely to her disturbed soul even a human voice, it seemed like the weird cry of some wild spirit of the storm. It sounded to her overwrought nerves so utterly inhuman that she only ran the faster.
The ca?on swerved and then doubled back, but he knew its direction; losing sight of her for the moment he plunged straight ahead through the trees, cutting off the bend, leaping with superhuman agility and strength over rocks and logs until he reached a point where the rift narrowed between two walls and ran deeply. There and then the heavens opened and the floods came and beat into that open maw of that vast crevasse and filled it full in an instant.
As the deluge came roaring down, bearing onward the sweepings and scourings of the mountains, he caught a glimpse of her white desperate face rising, falling, now disappearing, now coming into view again, in the foamy midst of the torrent. He ran to the cliff bank and throwing aside his gun he scrambled down the wall to a certain shelf of the rock over which the rising water broke thinly. Ordinarily it was twenty feet above the creek bed. Bracing himself against a jagged projection he waited, praying. The ca?on was here so narrow that he could have leaped to the other side and yet it was too wide for him to reach her if the water did not sweep her toward his feet. It was all done in a second – fortunately a projection on the other side threw the force of the torrent toward him and with it came the woman.
She was almost spent; she had been struck by a log upheaved by some mighty wave, her hands were moving feebly, her eyes were closed, she was drowning, dying, but indomitably battling on. He stooped down and as a surge lifted her he threw his arm around her waist and then braced himself against the rock to sustain the full thrust of the mighty flood. As he seized her she gave way suddenly, as if after having done all that she could there was now nothing left but to trust herself to his hand and God's. She hung a dead weight on his arm in the ravening water which dragged and tore at her madly.
He was a man of giant strength, but the struggle bade fair to be too much even for him. It seemed as if the mountain behind him was giving way. He set his teeth, he tried desperately to hold on, he thrust out his right hand, holding her with the other one, and clawed at the dripping rock in vain. In a moment the torrent mastered him and when it did so it seized him with fury and threw him like a stone from a sling into the seething vortex of the mid-stream. But in all this he did not, he would not, release her.
Such was the swiftness of the motion with which they were swept downward that he had little need to swim; his only effort was to keep his head above water and to keep from being dashed against the logs that tumbled end over end, or whirled sideways, or were jammed into clusters only to burst out on every hand. He struggled furiously to keep himself from being overwhelmed in the seething madness, and what was harder, to keep the lifeless woman in his arms from being stricken or wrenched away. He knew that below the narrows where the ca?on widened the water would subside, the awful fury of the rain would presently cease. If he could steer clear of the rocks in the broad he might win to land with her.
The chances against him were thousands to nothing. But what are chances in the eyes of God. The man in his solitude had not forgotten to pray, his habits stood him in good stead now. He petitioned shortly, brokenly, in brief unspoken words, as he battled through the long dragging seconds.
Fighting, clinging, struggling, praying, he was swept on. Heavier and heavier the woman dragged in an unconscious heap. It would have been easier for him if he had let her go; she would never know and he could then escape. The idea never once occurred to him. He had indeed withdrawn from his kind, but when one depended upon him all the old appeal of weak humanity awoke quick response in the bosom of the strong. He would die with the stranger rather than yield her to the torrent or admit himself beaten and give up the fight. So the conscious and the unconscious struggled through the narrow of the ca?on.
Presently with the rush and hurl of a bullet from the mouth of a gun, they found themselves in a shallow lake through which the waters still rushed mightily, breaking over rocks, digging away shallow rooted trees, leaping, biting, snarling, tearing at the big walls spread away on either side. He had husbanded some of his strength for this final effort, this last chance of escape. Below them at the other end of this open the walls came together again; there the descent was sharper than before and the water ran to the opening with racing speed. Once again in the torrent and they would be swept to death in spite of all.
Shifting his grasp to the woman's hair, now unbound, he held her with one hand and swam hard with the other. The current still ran swiftly, but with no gigantic upheaving waves as before. It was more easy to avoid floating timber and d?bris, and on one side where the ground sloped somewhat gently the quick water flowed more slowly. He struck out desperately for it, forcing himself away from the main stream into the shallows and ever dragging the woman. Was it hours or minutes or seconds after that he gained the battle and neared the shore at the lowest edge?
He caught with his forearm, as the torrent swerved him around, a stout young pine so deeply rooted as yet to have withstood the flood. Summoning that last reserve of strength that is bestowed upon us in our hour of need, and comes unless from God we know not whence, he drew himself in front of the pine, got his back against it, and although the water thundered against him still – only by comparison could it be called quieter – and his foothold was most precarious, he reached down carefully and grasped the woman under the shoulders. His position was a cramped one, but by the power of his arms alone he lifted her up until he got his left arm about her waist again. It was a mighty feat of strength indeed.
The pine stood in the midst of the water, for even on the farther side the earth was overflowed but the water was stiller; he did not know what might be there, but he had to chance it. Lifting her up he stepped out, fortunately meeting firm ground; a few paces and he reached solid rock above the flood. He raised her above his head and laid her upon the shore, then with the very last atom of all his force, physical, mental and spiritual, he drew himself up and fell panting and utterly exhausted but triumphant by her side.
The cloud burst was over, but the rain still beat down upon them, the thunder still roared above them, the lightning still flashed about them, but they were safe, alive if the woman had not died in his arms. He had done a thing superhuman – no man knowing conditions would have believed it. He himself would have declared a thousand times its patent impossibility.
For a few seconds he strove to recover himself; then he thought of the flask he always carried in his pocket. It was gone; his clothes were ragged and torn, they had been ruined by his battle with the waves. The girl lay where he had placed her on her back. In the pocket of her hunting skirt he noticed a little protuberance; the pocket was provided with a flap and tightly buttoned. Without hesitation he unbuttoned it. There was a flask there, a little silver mounted affair; by some miracle it had not been broken. It was half full. With nervous hands he opened it and poured some of its contents down her throat; then he bent over her his soul in his glance, scarcely knowing what to do next. Presently she opened her eyes.
And there, in the rain, by that raging torrent whence he had drawn her as it were from the jaws of death by the power of his arm, in the presence of the God above them, this man and this woman looked at each other and life for both of them was no longer the same.