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Tort Salvation








From: Ridgway Of Montana

She must have fallen asleep there, for when she opened her eyes it was
day. Underneath her was a lot of bedding he had found in the cabin, and
tucked about her were the automobile rugs. For a moment her brain, still
sodden with sleep, struggled helplessly with her surroundings. She looked
at the smoky rafters without understanding, and her eyes searched the
cabin wonderingly for her maid. When she remembered, her first thought was
to look for the man. That he had gone, she saw with instinctive terror.

But not without leaving a message. She found his penciled note, weighted
for security by a dollar, at the edge of the hearth.

"Gone on a foraging expedition. Back in an hour, Little Partner," was all
it said. The other man also had promised to be back in an hour, and he had
not come, but the strong chirography of the note, recalling the resolute
strength of this man's face, brought content to her eyes. He had said he
would come back. She rested secure in that pledge.

She went to the window and looked out over the great white wastes that
rose tier on tier to the dull sky-line. She shuddered at the arctic
desolation of the vast snow-fields. The mountains were sheeted with
silence and purity. It seemed to the untaught child-woman that she was
face to face with the Almighty.

Once during the night she had partially awakened to hear the roaring wind
as it buffeted snow-clouds across the range. It had come tearing along the
divide with the black storm in its vanguard, and she had heard fearfully
the shrieks and screams of the battle as it raged up and down the gulches
and sifted into them the deep drifts.

Half-asleep as she was, she had been afraid and had cried out with terror
at this strange wakening; and he had been beside her in an instant.

"It's all right, partner. There's nothing to be afraid of," he had said
cheerfully, taking her little hand in his big warm one.

Her fears had slipped away at once. Nestling down into her rug, she had
smiled sleepily at him and fallen asleep with her cheek on her hand, her
other hand still in his.

While she had been asleep the snow-tides had filled the gulch, had risen
level with the top of the lower pane of the window. Nothing broke the
smoothness of its flow save the one track he had made in breaking a way
out. That he should have tried to find his way through such an untracked
desolation amazed her. He could never do it. No puny human atom could
fight successfully against the barriers nature had dropped so sullenly to
fence them. They were set off from the world by a quarantine of God. There
was something awful to her in the knowledge. It emphasized their
impotence. Yet, this man had set himself to fight the inevitable.

With a little shudder she turned from the window to the cheerless room.
The floor was dirty; unwashed dishes were piled upon the table. Here and
there were scattered muddy boots and overalls, just as their owner, the
prospector, had left them before he had gone to the nearest town to
restock his exhausted supply of provisions. Disorder and dirt filled the
rough cabin, or so it seemed to her fastidious eye.

The inspiration of the housewife seized her. She would surprise him on his
return by opening the door to him upon a house swept and garnished. She
would show him that she could be of some use even in such a primitive
topsy-turvy world as this into which Fate had thrust her willy-nilly.

First, she carried red live coals on a shovel from the fireplace to the
cook-stove, and piled kindling upon them till it lighted. It was a new
experience to her. She knew nothing of housework; had never lit a fire in
her life, except once when she had been one of a camping party. The smoke
choked her before she had the lids back in their places, but despite her
awkwardness, the girl went about her unaccustomed tasks with a light
heart. It was for her new-found hero that she played at housekeeping. For
his commendation she filled the tea-kettle, enveloped herself in a cloud
of dust as she wielded the stub of a broom she discovered, and washed the
greasy dishes after the water was hot. A childish pleasure suffused her.
All her life her least whims had been ministered to; she was reveling in a
first attempt at service. As she moved to and fro with an improvised
dust-rag, sunshine filled her being. From her lips the joy notes fell in
song, shaken from her throat for sheer happiness. This surely was life,
that life from which she had so carefully been hedged all the years of her
young existence.

As he came down the trail he had broken, with a pack on his back, the man
heard her birdlike carol in the clear frosty air. He emptied his chest in
a deep shout, and she was instantly at the window, waving him a welcome
with her dust-rag.

"I thought you were never coming," she cried from the open door as he came
up the path.

Her eyes were starry in their eagerness. Every sensitive feature was alert
with interest, so that the man thought he had never seen so mobile and
attractive a face.

"Did it seem long?" he asked.

"Oh, weeks and weeks! You must be frozen to an icicle. Come in and get
warm."

"I'm as warm as toast," he assured her.

He was glowing with exercise and the sting of the cold, for he had tramped
two miles through drifts from three to five feet deep, battling with them
every step of the way, and carrying with him on the return trip a box of
provisions.

"With all that snow on you and the pack on your back, it's like Santa
Claus," she cried, clapping her hands.

"Before we're through with the adventure we may think that box a sure
enough gift from Santa," he replied.

After he had put it down, he took off his overcoat on the threshold and
shook the snow from it. Then, with much feet stamping and scattering of
snow, he came in. She fluttered about him, dragging a chair up to the fire
for him, and taking his hat and gloves. It amused and pleased him that she
should be so solicitous, and he surrendered himself to her ministrations.

His quick eye noticed the swept floor and the
evanishment of disorder. "Hello! What's this clean through a fall
house-cleaning? I'm not the only member of the firm that has been working.
Dishes washed, floor swept, bed made, kitchen fire lit. You've certainly
been going some, unless the fairies helped you. Aren't you afraid of
blistering these little hands?" he asked gaily, taking one of them in his
and touching the soft palm gently with the tip of his finger.

"I should preserve those blisters in alcohol to show that I've really been
of some use," she answered, happy in his approval.

"Sho! People are made for different uses. Some are fit only to shovel and
dig. Others are here simply to decorate the world. Hard world. Hard work
is for those who can't give society anything else, but beauty is its own
excuse for being," he told her breezily.

"Now that's the first compliment you have given me," she pouted prettily.
"I can get them in plenty back in the drawing-rooms where I am supposed to
belong. We're to be real comrades here, and compliments are barred."

"I wasn't complimenting you," he maintained. "I was merely stating a
principle of art."

"Then you mustn't make your principles of art personal, sir. But since you
have, I'm going to refute the application of your principle and show how
useful I've been. Now, sir, do you know what provisions we have outside of
those you have just brought?"

He knew exactly, since he had investigated during the night. That they
might possibly have to endure a siege of some weeks, he was quite well
aware, and his first thought, after she had gone to sleep before the fire,
had been to make inventory of such provisions as the prospector had left
in his cabin. A knuckle of ham, part of a sack of flour, some navy beans,
and some tea siftings at the bottom of a tin can; these constituted the
contents of the larder which the miner had gone to replenish. But though
the man knew he assumed ignorance, for he saw that she was bubbling over
with the desire to show her forethought.

"Tell me," he begged of her, and after she had done so, he marveled aloud
over her wisdom in thinking of it.

"Now tell me about your trip," she commanded, setting herself tailor
fashion on the rug to listen.

"There isn't much to tell," he smiled "I should like to make an adventure
of it, but I can't. I just went and came back."

"Oh, you just went and came back, did you?" she scoffed. "That won't do at
all. I want to know all about it. Did you find the machine all right?"

"I found it where we left it, buried in four feet of snow. You needn't be
afraid that anybody will run away with it for a day or two. The pantry was
cached pretty deep itself, but I dug it out."

Her shy glance admired the sturdy lines of his powerful frame. "I am
afraid it must have been a terrible task to get there through the
blizzard."

"Oh, the blizzard is past. You never saw a finer, more bracing morning.
It's a day for the gods," he laughed boyishly.

She could have conceived no Olympian more heroic than he, and certainly
none with so compelling a vitality. "Such a warm, kind light in them!" she
thought of the eyes others had found hard and calculating.

It was lucky that the lunch the automobilists had brought from Avalanche
was ample and as yet untouched. The hotel waiter, who had attended to the
packing of it, had fortunately been used to reckon with outdoor Montana
appetites instead of cloyed New York ones. They unpacked the little hamper
with much gaiety. Everything was frozen solid, and the wine had cracked
its bottle.

"Shipped right through on our private refrigerator-car. That cold-storage
chicken looks the finest that ever happened. What's this rolled up in
tissue-paper? Deviled eggs and ham sandwiches AND caviar, not to speak of
claret frappe. I'm certainly grateful to the gentleman finished in ebony
who helped to provision us for this siege. He'll never know what a tip he
missed by not being here to collect."

"Here's jelly, too, and cake," she said, exploring with him.

"Not to mention peaches and pears. Oh, this is luck of a special brand! I
was expecting to put up at Starvation Camp. Now we may name it Point
Plenty."

"Or Fort Salvation," she suggested shyly. "Because you brought me here to
save my life."

She was such a child, in spite of her charming grown-up airs, that he
played make-believe with a zest that surprised himself when he came to
think of it. She elected him captain of Fort Salvation, with full power of
life and death over the garrison, and he appointed her second in command.
His first general order was to put the garrison on two meals a day.

She clapped her little hands, eyes sparkling with excitement. "Are we
really snow-bound? Must we go on half-rations?"

"It is the part of wisdom, lieutenant," he answered, smiling at her
enthusiasm. "We don't know how long this siege is going to last. If it
should set in to snow, we may be here several days before the relief-party
reaches us." But, though he spoke cheerfully, he was aware of sinister
possibilities in the situation. "Several weeks" would have been nearer his
real guess.

They ate breakfast at the shelf-table nailed in place underneath the
western window. They made a picnic of it, and her spirits skipped upon the
hilltops. For the first time she ate from tin plates, drank from a tin
cup, and used a tin spoon the worse for rust. What mattered it to her that
the teapot was grimy and the fryingpan black with soot! It was all part of
the wonderful new vista that had suddenly opened before her gaze. She had
awakened into life and already she was dimly realizing that many and
varied experiences lay waiting for her in that untrodden path beyond her
cloistered world.

A reconnaissance in the shed behind the house showed him no plethora of
firewood. But here was ax, shovel, and saw, and he asked no more. First he
shoveled out a path along the eaves of the house where she might walk in
sentry fashion to take the deep breaths of clear sharp air he insisted
upon. He made it wide enough so that her skirt would not sweep against the
snow-bank, and trod down the trench till the footing was hard and solid.
Then with ax and saw he climbed the hillside back of the house and set
himself to get as much fuel as he could. The sky was still heavy with
unshed snow, and he knew that with the coming of night the storm would be
renewed.

Came noon, mid-afternoon, the early dusk of a mountain winter, and found
him still hewing and sawing, still piling load after load in the shed. Now
and again she came out and watched him, laughing at the figure he made as
he would come plunging through the snow with his armful of fuel.

She did not know, as he did, the vital necessity of filling the lean-to
before winter fell upon them in earnest and buried them deep with his
frozen blanket, and she was a little piqued that he should spend the whole
day away from her in such unsocial fashion.

"Let me help," she begged so often that he trod down a path, made boots
for her out of torn gunny-sacks which he tied round her legs, and let her
drag wood to the house on a pine branch which served for a sled. She wore
her gauntlets to protect her tender hands, and thereafter was happy until,
detecting signs of fatigue, he made her go into the house and rest.

As soon as she dared she was back again, making fun of him and the
earnestness with which he worked.

"Robinson Crusoe" was one name she fastened upon him, and she was not
satisfied till she had made him call her "Friday."

Twilight fell austere and sudden upon them with an immediate fall of
temperature that found a thermometer in her blue face.

He recommended the house, but she was of a contrary mood.

"I don't want to," she announced debonairly.

In a stiff military attitude he gave raucous mandate from his throat.

"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant."

"I think I'm going to mutiny," she informed him, with chin saucily in air.

This would not do at all. The chill wind sweeping down the canon was
searching her insufficient clothing already. He picked her up in his arms
and ran with her toward the house, setting her down in the trench outside
the door. She caught her startled breath and looked at him in shy, dubious
amazement.

"Really you " she was beginning when he cut her short.

"Commanding officer's orders, lieutenant," came briskly from lips that
showed just a hint of a smile.

At once she clicked her heels together, saluted, and wheeled into the
cabin.

From the grimy window she watched his broad-shouldered vigor, waving her
hand whenever his face was turned her way. He worked like a Titan,
reveling in the joy of physical labor, but it was long past dark before he
finished and came striding to the hut.

They made a delightful evening of it, living in the land of Never Was. For
one source of her charm lay in the gay, childlike whimsicality o her
imagination. She believed in fairies and heroes with all her heart, which
with her was an organ not located in her brain. The delicious gurgle of
gaiety in her laugh was a new find to him in feminine attractions.

There had been many who thought the career of this pirate of industry
beggared fiction, though, few had found his flinty personality a radiaton
of romance. But this convent-nurtured child had made a discovery in men,
one out of the rut of the tailor-made, convention-bound society youths to
whom her experience for the most part had been limited. She delighted in
his masterful strength, in the confidence of his careless dominance. She
liked to see that look of power in his gray-blue eyes softened to the
droll, half-tender, expression with which he played the game of
make-believe. There were no to-morrows; to-day marked the limit of time
for them. By tacit consent they lived only in the present, shutting out
deliberately from their knowledge of each other, that past which was not
common to both. Even their names were unknown to each other, and both of
them were glad that it was so.

The long winter evening had fallen early, and they dined by candle-light,
considering merrily how much they might with safety eat and yet leave
enough for the to-morrows that lay before them. Afterward they sat before
the fire, in the shadow and shine of the flickering logs, happy and
content in each other's presence. She dreamed, and he, watching her,
dreamed, too. The wild, sweet wonder of life surged through them, touching
their squalid surroundings to the high mystery of things unreal.

The strangeness of it was that he was a man of large and not very
creditable experience of women, yet her deep, limpid eyes, her sweet
voice, the immature piquancy of her movements that was the expression of
her, had stirred his imagination more potently than if he had been the
veriest schoolboy nursing a downy lip. He could not keep his eyes from
this slender, exquisite girl, so dainty and graceful in her mobile
piquancy. Fire and passion were in his heart and soul, restraint and
repression in his speech and manner. For the fire and passion in him were
pure and clean as the winds that sweep the hills.

But for the girl--she was so little mistress of her heart that she had no
prescience of the meaning of this sweet content that filled her. And the
voices that should have warned her were silent, busy behind the purple
hills with lies and love and laughter and tears.





Next: Enter Simon Harley

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