Story type: Literature
–the murderer still seeks forgetfulness in
the solitude, building his cabin in the shadow
of great peaks.
The road that leads to the historic north shoulder of Solidor is lonely now. The stages that once crawled painfully upward through its flowery meadows are playhouses for the children of Silver Plume, and the brakes that once howled so resoundingly on the downward way are rusting to ashes in the weeds that spring from the soil of the Silverado Queen’s unused corral. The railway, half a hundred miles to the north, has left the famous pass to solitude and to grass.
Once a week, or possibly oftener, a cattleman or prospector rides across, or a little band of tourists plod up or down,–thinking they are penetrating to the heart of the Rockies,–but for the most part the trail is passing swiftly to the unremembered twilight of the tragic past. There are, it is true, one or two stamp-mills above Pemberton, but they draw their supplies from the valley to the west and not from the plain’s cities, and the upper camps have long since been deserted by the restless seeker of sudden gold.
It is a desolate, unshaded country, made so by the reckless hand of the tenderfoot prospector, who, in the days of the silver rush, cut and burned the timber sinfully, and the great peaks are meticulated with the rotting boles of noble pines and spotted with the decaying stumps of the firs which once made the whole land as beautiful as a park. Here and there, however, a segment of this splendid ancient forest remains to give some hint of what the ranges were before the destroying horde of silver-seekers struck and scarred it.
Along this trail and above the last vestige of its standing trees a man could be seen, walking eastward and upward, one bright afternoon in August, a couple of years ago. He moved slowly, for he was heavily built and obviously not much used to climbing, for he paused often to breathe. The air at that altitude is thin and, to the one not accustomed to it, most unsatisfying. In the intervals of his pauses the traveler’s eyes swept the heights and explored each canyon wall as if in search of a resting-place. Around him the conies cried and small birds skimmed from ledge to ledge, but his dark face did not lighten with joy of the beauty which shone over his head nor to that which flamed under his feet. It was plain that he was too preoccupied with some inner problem, too intent on his quest, to give eye or ear to the significance of bird or flower.
Huge Solidor, bare and bleak, rose grandly to the north, propping the high-piled shining clouds, and the somber, dust-covered fields of snow showed to what far height his proud summit soared above his fellows. Little streams of icy water trickled through close-knit, velvety sward whereon small flowers, white and gold and lilac, showed like fairy footprints. Down from the pass a chill wind, delicious and invigorating, rushed as palpably as if it were a liquid wave. In all this upper region no shelter offered to the tired man.
A few minutes later, as he rounded the sloping green bastion which flanks the peak to the south, the man’s keen eyes lighted upon a small cabin which squatted almost unnoticeably against a gray ledge some five hundred feet higher than the rock whereon he stood. The door of this hut was open and the figure of a man, dwarfed by distance, could be detected intently watching the pedestrian on the trail. Unlike most cabin-dwellers, he made no sign of greeting, uttered no shout of cheer; on the contrary, as the stranger approached he disappeared within his den like a marmot.
There was something appealing in the slow mounting of the man on foot. He was both tired and breathless, and as he neared the cabin (which was built on ground quite twelve thousand feet above sea-level) his limbs dragged, and every step he made required his utmost will. Twice he stopped to recover his strength and to ease the beating of his heart, and as he waited thus the last time the lone cabin-dweller appeared in his door and silently gazed, confronting his visitor with a strangely inhospitable and prolonged scrutiny. It was as if he were a lonely animal, jealous of his ground and resentful even of the most casual human inspection.
The stranger, advancing near, spoke. “Is this the trail to Silver Plume?” he asked, his heaving breast making his speech broken.
“It is,” replied the miner, whose thin face and hawk-like eyes betrayed the hermit and the man on guard.
“How far is it across the pass?”
“About thirty miles.”
“A good night’s walk. Are there any camps above here?”
“How far is it to the next cabin?”
“Some twelve miles.”
The miner, still studying the stranger with piercing intensity, expressed a desire to be reassured. “What are you doing up here on this trail? Are you a mining expert? A spy?” he seemed to ask.
The traveler, divining his curiosity, explained. “I stayed last night at the mill below. I’m a millwright. I have some property to inspect in Silver Plume, hence I’m walking across. I didn’t know it was so far; I was misinformed. I’m not accustomed to this high air and I’m used up. Can you take care of me?”
The miner glanced round at the heap of ore which betrayed his craft, and then back at the dark, bearded, impassive face.
“Come in,” he said at last, “I’ll feed you.” But his manner was at once surly and suspicious.
The walls of the hovel were built partly of logs and partly of boulders, and its roof was compacted of dirt and gravel; but it was decently habitable. The furniture (hand-rived out of slabs) was scanty, and the floor was laid with planks, yet everything indicated many days of wear.
“You’ve been here some time,” the stranger remarked rather than asked.
Thereafter the two men engaged in a silent duel. The millwright, leaning back in his rude chair, stretched his tired limbs and gazed down the valley with no further word of inquiry, while his grudging host prepared a primitive meal and set it upon a box which served as a table.
“You may eat,” he curtly said.
In complete silence and with calm abstraction the stranger turned to the food and ate and drank, accepting it all as if this were a roadhouse and he a paying guest. The sullen watchfulness of his host seemed not to disturb him, not even to interest him.
At length the miner spoke as if in answer to a question–the question he feared.
“No, my mine has not panned out well–not yet. The ore is low-grade and the mill is too far away.”
To this informing statement the other man did not so much as lift an eyebrow. His face was like a closed door, his eyes were curtained windows. He mused darkly as one who broods on some bitter defeat.
Nevertheless, he was a human presence and the lonely dweller on the heights could not resist the charm of his guest’s personality, remote as he seemed.
“Where do you live?” he asked.
There was a moment’s hesitation.
“In St. Paul.”
“Ever been here before?”
The dark man shook his shaggy head slowly, and dropped his eyes as if this were the end of the communication. “No, and I never expect to come again.”
The miner perceived power in his guest’s resolute taciturnity, and the very weight of the silence eventually opened his own lips. From moment to moment the impulse to talk grew stronger within him. There was something as compelling as heat in this reticent visitor whose soul was so intent on inward problems that it perceived nothing of interest in an epaulet of gold on the shoulder of Mount Solidor.
“Few come this trail now,” the miner volunteered, as he cleared the table. “I am alone and seldom see a human being drifting my way. I do not invite them.”
The stranger refilled his pipe and again leaned back against the wall in ponderous repose. If he heard his host’s remark he gave no sign of it, and yet, despite the persistence of his guest’s silence–perhaps because of it–the lonely gold-seeker babbled on with increasing candor, contradicting himself, revealing, hiding, edging round his story, confessing to his hopes of riches, betraying in the end the secrets of his lonely life. It was as if the gates of his unnatural reserve had broken down and the desire to be heard, to be companioned, had over-borne all his early caution.
“It’s horribly lonesome up here,” he confessed. “Sometimes I think I’ll give it all up and go back to civilization. When I came here the pass had its traffic; now no one rides it, which is lucky for me,” he added. “I have no prying visitors–I mean no one to contest my claim–and yet a man can’t do much alone. Even if my ore richens I must transport it or build a mill. Sometimes I wonder what I’m living for, stuck away in this hole in the hills. I was born to better things–“
He checked himself at this moment, as if he were on the edge of self-betrayal, but his listener seemed not vitally interested in these personal details. However, he made some low-voiced remark, and, as if hypnotized, the miner resumed his monologue.
“The nights are the worst. They are endless–and sometimes when I cannot sleep I feel like surrendering to my fate–” Here again he broke off sharply. “That’s nonsense, of course. I mean, it seems as if a life were too much to pay for a crazy act–I mean a mine. You’ll ask why I don’t sell it, but it’s all I have and, besides, no one has any faith in it but myself. I cannot sell, and I can’t live down there among men.”
Gabbling, keeping time to his nervous feet and hands, endlessly repeating himself, denying, confessing, the miner raged on, and through it all the dark-browed guest smoked tranquilly, too indifferent to ask a question or make comment; but when, once or twice, he lifted his eyes, the garrulous one shuddered and turned away, a scared look on his haggard face. He seemed unable to endure that steady glance.
At last, for a little space, he remained silent; then, as if compelled by some increasing magic in his hearer, he burst forth:
“I’m not here entirely by my own fault–I mean my own choice. A man is a product of his environment, you know that, and mine made me idle, wasteful. Drink got me–drink made me mad–and so–and so–here I am struggling to win back a fortune. Once I gambled–on the wheel; now I am gambling with nature on the green of these mountain slopes; but I’ll win–I have already won–and soon I shall sell and go back to the great cities.”
Again his will curbed his treacherous tongue, and, walking to the doorway, he stood for a moment, looking out; then he fiercely snarled:
“Oh, God, how I hate it all–how I hate myself! I am going mad with this life! The squeak of these shadowy conies, the twitter of these unseen little birds, go on day by day. They’ll drive me mad! If you had not come to-night I could not have slept–I would have gone to the mill, and that means drink to me–drink and oblivion. You came and saved me. I feared you–hated you then; now I bless you.”
Once more he seemed to answer an unspoken query:
“I have no people. My mother is dead, my father has disowned me–he does not even know I am alive. I’m the black devil of the family–but I shall go back–“
His face was working with passion, and though he took a seat opposite his guest, his hands continued to flutter aimlessly and his head moved restlessly from side to side.
“I don’t know why I am telling all this to you,” he went on after a pause. “I reckon it’s because of the weakness of the thirst that is coming over me. Some time I’ll go down to those hell-holes at the mills and never come back–the stuff they sell to me is destructive as fire–it is poison! You’re a man of substance, I can see that–you’re no hobo like most of the fellows out here–that’s why I’m talking to you. You remind me of some one I know. There’s something familiar in your eyes.”
The man with the beard struck the ashes from his pipe and began scraping it. “There is always a woman in these cases,” he critically remarked.
The miner took this simple statement as a challenging question. His excitement visibly increased, but he did not at once reply. He talked on aimlessly, incoherently, struggling like a small animal in a torrent. He rose at last, and as he stood in the doorway, breathing deeply, his face livid in the sunset light, the muscles of his jaw trembled.
The stranger observed his host’s agitation, but put away his pipe with slow and steady hand. He said nothing, and yet an observer would have declared he held the other and weaker man in the grasp of an inexorable hypnotic silence. Finally he fixed a calm, cold glance upon his host, as if summoning him to answer.
“Yes,” the miner confessed, “there is always a woman in the case–another and more fortunate man. The woman is false, the man is treacherous. You trust and they betray. Such beings ruin and madden–they make outlaws such as I am–“
“Love is above will,” asserted the millwright, with decision.
The other man fiercely turned. “I know what you mean–you mean the woman is not to be condemned–that love goes where it is drawn. That is true, but deceit is not involuntary–it is deliberate–“
“Sometimes we deceive ourselves.”
“In her case it was deceit,” retorted the miner, who was now so deeply engaged with his own story that each general observation on the part of his guest was taken to be specific and personal.
The room was growing dusky, and the stranger’s glance appeared keener, more insistent, as his body melted into the shadow. His shaggy head and black beard all but disappeared; only the faint outlines of his forehead remained, and yet, as his physical self faded into the gloom, his personality, his psychic self, loomed larger. His will enveloped the hermit, drawing upon him with irresistible power. It was as if he were wringing him dry of a confession as the priest closes in upon the culprit.
“I had my happy days–my days of care-free youth,” the unquiet man was saying. “But my time of innocence was short. Evil companions came early and reckless deeds followed…. I knew I was losing something, I knew I was being drawn downward, but I could not escape. Day and night I called for help, and then–she came–“
“The one who made me forget all the others, the one who made me ashamed.”
“And then for a time I was happy in the hope that I might win her and so redeem my life.”
“She pitied me–at first–and loved me–at least I thought so.”
As his excitement increased his words came slower, burdened with passion. He spoke like a prisoner addressing a judge, his voice but a husky whisper.
“I told her I was unworthy of her–that was when I believed her to be an angel. I promised to begin a new life for her sake. Then she promised me–helped me–and all the while she was false to me–false as a hell-cat!”
“How?” queried the almost invisible man, and his voice was charged with stern demand.
“All the time she was promised to another man–and that man my enemy.”
Here his frenzy flared forth in a torrent of words.
“Then–then I went mad. My brain was scarred and numb. I lost all sense of pity–all fear of law–all respect for woman. I only knew my wrongs–my despair–my hate. I watched, I waited, I found them together–“
“And then? What did you do then?” demanded the stranger, rising from his seat with sudden energy, his voice deep, insistent, masterful. “Tell me what you did?”
The miner’s wild voice died to a hesitant whisper. “I–I fled.”
“But before that–before you fled?”
“What is it to you?” asked the hermit, gazing with scared eyes at the man who towered above him like the demon of retribution. “Who are you?”
“I am the avenger!” answered the other. “The man you hated was my brother. The woman you killed was his wife.”
The fugitive fell upon his knees with a cry like that of one being strangled.
Out of the darkness a red flame darted, and the crouching man fell to the floor, a crumpled, bloody heap.
For a long time the executioner stood above the body, waiting, listening from the shadow to the faint receding breath-strokes of his victim. When all was still he restored his weapon to its sheath and stepped over the threshold into the keen and pleasant night.
As he closed the door behind him the stranger raised his eyes to Solidor, whose sovereign, cloud-like crest swayed among the stars.
“Now I shall rest,” he said, with solemn satisfaction.