The Country Beyond - James Oliver Curwood - ebook
Kategoria: Obyczajowe i romanse Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1922

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James Oliver Curwood

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Opis ebooka The Country Beyond - James Oliver Curwood

A glass of wine once lost a kingdom, a nail turned the tide of a mighty battle, and a woman's smile once upon a time destroyed the homes of a million people. Thus have trivial things played their potent parts in the history of human lives; yet these things Peter did not know.

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Fragment ebooka The Country Beyond - James Oliver Curwood

About

Chapter 1
Chapter 2

About Curwood:

James Oliver Curwood, (June 12, 1878 – August 13, 1927), was an American novelist and conservationist. A great number of his works were turned into movies, several of which starred Nell Shipman as a brave and adventurous woman in the wilds of the north. Many films from Curwood's writings were made during his lifetime, as well as after his passing through to the 1950s. In 1988 French director Jean-Jacques Annaud used his 1916 novel, The Grizzly King to make the film The Bear. Annaud's success generated a renewed interest in Curwood's stories that resulted in five more films being produced in 1994 and 1995.

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A glass of wine once lost a kingdom, a nail turned the tide of a mighty battle, and a woman's smile once upon a time destroyed the homes of a million people. Thus have trivial things played their potent parts in the history of human lives; yet these things Peter did not know.


Chapter 1

 

Not far from the rugged and storm-whipped north shore of Lake Superior, and south of the Kaministiqua, yet not as far south as the Rainy River waterway, there lay a paradise lost in the heart of a wilderness world—and in that paradise "a little corner of hell."

That was what the girl had called it once upon a time, when sobbing out the shame and the agony of it to herself. That was before Peter had come to leaven the drab of her life. But the hell was still there.

One would not have guessed its existence, standing at the bald top of Cragg's Ridge this wonderful thirtieth day of May. In the whiteness of winter one could look off over a hundred square miles of freezing forest and swamp and river country, with the gleam of ice-covered lakes here and there, fringed by their black spruce and cedar and balsam—a country of storm, of deep snows, and men and women whose blood ran red with the thrill that the hardship and the never-ending adventure of the wild.

But this was spring. And such a spring as had not come to the Canadian north country in many years. Until three days ago there had been a deluge of warm rains, and since then the sun had inundated the land with the golden warmth of summer. The last chill was gone from the air, and the last bit of frozen earth and muck from the deepest and blackest swamps, North, south, east and west the wilderness world was a glory of bursting life, of springtime mellowing into summer. Ridge upon ridge of yellows and greens and blacks swept away into the unknown distances like the billows of a vast sea; and between them lay the valleys and swamps, the lakes and waterways, glad with the rippling song of running waters, the sweet scents of early flowering time, and the joyous voice of all mating creatures.

Just under Cragg's Ridge lay the paradise, a meadow-like sweep of plain that reached down to the edge of Clearwater Lake, with clumps of poplars and white birch and darker tapestries of spruce and balsams dotting it like islets in a sea of verdant green. The flowers were two weeks ahead of their time and the sweet perfumes of late June, instead of May, rose up out of the plain, and already there was nesting in the velvety splashes of timber.

In the edge of a clump of this timber, flat on his belly, lay Peter. The love of adventure was in him, and today he had sallied forth on his most desperate enterprise. For the first time he had gone alone to the edge of Clearwater Lake, half a mile away; boldly he had trotted up and down the white strip of beach where the girl's footprints still remained in the sand, and defiantly he had yipped at the shimmering vastness of the water, and at the white gulls circling near him in quest of dead fish flung ashore. Peter was three months old. Yesterday he had been a timid pup, shrinking from the bigness and strangeness of everything about him; but today he had braved the lake trail on his own nerve, and nothing had dared to come near him in spite of his yipping, so that a great courage and a great desire were born in him.

Therefore, in returning, he had paused in the edge of a great clump of balsams and spruce, and lay flat on his belly, his sharp little eyes leveled yearningly at the black mystery of its deeper shadows. The bit of forest filled a cup-like depression in the plain, and was possibly half a rifle-shot distance from end to end—but to Peter it was as vast as life itself. And something urged him to go in.

And as he lay there, desire and indecision struggling for mastery within him, no power could have told Peter that destinies greater than his own were working through the soul of the dog that was in him, and that on his decision to go in or not to go in—on the triumph of courage or cowardice—there rested the fates of lives greater than his own, of men, and women, and of little children still unborn. A glass of wine once lost a kingdom, a nail turned the tide of a mighty battle, and a woman's smile once upon a time destroyed the homes of a million people. Thus have trivial things played their potent parts in the history of human lives, yet these things Peter did not know—nor that his greatest hour had come.

At last he rose from his squatting posture, and stood upon his feet. He was not a beautiful pup, this Peter Pied-Bot—or Peter Club-foot, as Jolly Roger McKay—who lived over in the big cedar swamp—had named him when he gave Peter to the girl. He was, in a way, an accident and a homely one at that. His father was a blue-blooded fighting Airedale who had broken from his kennel long enough to commit a MESALLIANCE with a huge big footed and peace-loving Mackenzie hound—and Peter was the result. He wore the fiercely bristling whiskers of his Airedale father at the age of three months; his ears were flappy and big, his tail was knotted, and his legs were ungainly and loose, with huge feet at the end of them—so big and heavy that he stumbled frequently, and fell on his nose. One pitied him at first—and then loved him. For Peter, in spite of his homeliness, had the two best bloods of all dog creation in his veins. Yet in a way it was like mixing nitro-glycerin with olive oil, or dynamite and saltpeter with milk and honey.

Peter's heart was thumping rapidly as he took a step toward the deeper shadows. He swallowed hard, as if to clear a knot out of his scrawny throat. But he had made up his mind. Something was compelling him, and he would go in. Slowly the gloom engulfed him, and once again the whimsical spirit of fatalism had chosen a trivial thing to work out its ends in the romance and tragedy of human lives.

Grim shadows began to surround Peter, and his ears shot up, and a scraggly brush stood out along his spine. But he did not bark, as he had barked along the shore of the lake, and in the green opens. Twice he looked back to the shimmer of sunshine that was growing more and more indistinct. As long as he could see this, and knew that his retreat was open, there still remained a bit of that courage which was swiftly ebbing in the thickening darkness. But the third time he looked back the light of the sun was utterly gone! For an instant the knot rose up in his throat and choked him, and his eyes popped, and grew like little balls of fire in his intense desire to see through the gloom. Even the girl, who was afraid of only one thing in the world, would have paused where Peter stood, with a little quickening of her heart. For all the light of the day, it seemed to Peter, had suddenly died out. Over his head the spruce and cedar and balsam tops grew so thick they were like a canopy of night. Through them the snow never came in winter, and under them the light of a blazing sun was only a ghostly twilight.

And now, as he stood there, his whole soul burning with a desire to see his way out, Peter began to hear strange sounds. Strangest of all, and most fearsome, was a hissing that came and went, sometimes very near to him, and always accompanied by a grating noise that curdled his blood. Twice after that he saw the shadow of the great owl as it swooped over him, and he flattened himself down, the knot in his throat growing bigger and more choking. And then he heard the soft and uncanny movement of huge feathered bodies in the thick shroud of boughs overhead, and slowly and cautiously he wormed himself around, determined to get back to sunshine and day as quickly as he could. It was not until he had made this movement that the real chill of horror gripped at his heart. Straight behind him, directly in the path he had traveled, he saw two little green balls of flame!

It was instinct, and not reason or experience, which told Peter there was menace and peril in these two tiny spots blazing in the gloom. He did not know that his own eyes, popping half out of his head, were equally terrifying in that pit of silence, nor that from him emanated a still more terrifying thing—the scent of dog. He trembled on his wobbly legs as the green eyes stared at him, and his back seemed to break in the middle, so that he sank helplessly down upon the soft spruce needles, waiting for his doom. In another flash the twin balls of green fire were gone. In a moment they appeared again, a little farther away. Then a second time they were gone, and a third time they flashed back at him—so distant they appeared like needle-points in the darkness. Something stupendous rose up in Peter. It was the soul of his Airedale father, telling him the other thing was running away! And in the joy of triumph Peter let out a yelp. In that night-infested place, alive with hiding things, the yelp set loose weird rustlings in the tangled treetops, strange murmurings of chortling voices, and the nasty snapping of beaks that held in them the power to rend Peter's skinny body into a hundred bits. From deeper in the thicket came the sudden crash of a heavy body, and with it the chuckling notes of a porcupine, and a HOO-HOO-HOO-EE of startled inquiry that at first Peter took for a human voice. And again he lay shivering close to the foot-deep carpet of needles under him, while his heart thumped against his ribs, and his whiskers stood out in mortal fear. There followed a weird and appalling silence, and in that stillness Peter quested vainly for the sunlight he had lost. And then, indistinctly, but bringing with it a new thrill, he heard another sound. It was a soft and distant rippling of running water. He knew that sound. It was friendly. He had played among the rocks and pebbles and sand where it was made. His courage came back, and he rose up on his legs, and made his way toward it. Something inside him told him to go quietly, but his feet were big and clumsy, and half a dozen times in the next two minutes he stumbled on his nose. At last he came to the stream, scarcely wider than a man might have reached across, rippling and plashing its way through the naked roots of trees. And ahead of him Peter saw light. He quickened his pace, until at the last he was running when he came out into the edge of the meadowy plain, with its sweetness of flowers and green grass and song of birds, and its glory of blue sky and sun.

If he had ever been afraid, Peter forgot it now. The choking went out of his throat, his heart fell back in its place, and the fierce conviction that he had vanquished everything in the world possessed him. He peered back into the dark cavern of evergreen out of which the streamlet gurgled, and then trotted straight away from it, growling back his defiance as he ran. At a safe distance he stopped, and faced about. Nothing was following him, and the importance of his achievements grew upon him. He began to swell; his fore-legs he planted pugnaciously, he hollowed his back, and began to bark with all the puppyish ferocity that was in him. And though he continued to yelp, and pounded the earth with his paws, and tore up the green grass with his sharp little teeth, nothing dared to come out of the black forest in answer to his challenge!

His head was high and his ears cocked jauntily as he trotted up the slope, and for the first time in his three months of existence he yearned to give battle to something that was alive. He was a changed Peter, no longer satisfied with the thought of gnawing sticks or stones or mauling a rabbit skin. At the crest of the slope he stopped, and yelped down, almost determined to go back to that black patch of forest and chase out everything that was in it. Then he turned toward Cragg's Ridge, and what he saw seemed slowly to shrink up the pugnaciousness that was in him, and his stiffened tail drooped until the knotty end of it touched the ground.

Three or four hundred yards away, out of the heart of that cup-like paradise which ran back through a break in the ridge, rose a spiral of white smoke, and with the sight of that smoke Peter heard also the chopping of axe. It made him shiver, and yet he made his way toward it. He was not old enough—nor was it in the gentle blood of his Mackenzie mother—to know the meaning of hate; but something was growing swiftly in Peter's shrewd little head, and he sensed impending danger whenever he heard the sound of the axe. For always there was associated with that sound the cat-like, thin-faced man with the red bristle on his upper lip, and the one eye that never opened but was always closed. And Peter had come to fear this one eyed man more than he feared any of the ghostly monsters hidden in the black pit of the forest he had braved that day.

But the owls, and the porcupine, and the fiery-eyed fox that had run away from him, had put into Peter something which was not in him yesterday, and he did not slink on his belly when he came to the edge of the cup between the broken ridge, but stood up boldly on his crooked legs and looked ahead of him. At the far edge of the cup, under the western shoulder of the ridge, was a thick scattering of tall cedars and green poplars and white birch, and in the shelter of these was a cabin built of logs. A lovelier spot could not have been chosen for the home of man. The hollow, from where Peter stood, was a velvety carpet of green, thickly strewn with flowers and ferns, sweet with the scent of violets and wild honey-suckle, and filled with the song of birds. Through the middle of it purled a tiny creek which disappeared between the ragged shoulders of rock, and close to this creek stood the cabin, its log walls smothered under a luxuriant growth of wood-vine. But Peter's quizzical little eyes were not measuring the beauty of the place, nor were his ears listening to the singing of birds, or the chattering of a red-squirrel on a stub a few yards away. He was looking beyond the cabin, to a chalk-white mass of rock that rose like a giant mushroom in the edge of the trees—and he was listening to the ringing of the axe, and straining his ears to catch the sound of a voice.

It was the voice he wanted most of all, and when this did not come he choked back a whimper in his throat, and went down to the creek, and waded through it, and came up cautiously behind the cabin, his eyes and ears alert and his loosely jointed legs ready for flight at a sign of danger. He wanted to set up his sharp yipping signal for the girl, but the menace of the axe choked back his desire. At the very end of the cabin, where the wood-vine grew thick and dense, Peter had burrowed himself a hiding-place, and into this he skulked with the quickness of a rat getting away from its enemies. From this protecting screen he cautiously poked forth his whiskered face, to make what inventory he could of his chances for supper and a safe home-coming.

And as he looked forth his heart gave a sudden jump.

It was the girl, and not the man who was using the axe today. At the big wood-pile half a stone's throw away he saw the shimmer of her brown curls in the sun, and a glimpse of her white face as it was turned for an instant toward the cabin. In his gladness he would have leaped out, but the curse of a voice he had learned to dread held him back.

A man had come out of the cabin, and close behind the man, a woman. The man was a long, lean, cadaverous-faced creature, and Peter knew that the devil was in him as he stood there at the cabin door. His breath, if one had stood close enough to smell it, was heavy with whiskey. Tobacco juice stained the corners of his mouth, and his one eye gleamed with an animal-like exultation as he nodded toward the girl with the shining curls.

"Mooney says he'll pay seven-fifty for her when he gets his tie-money from the Government, an' he paid me fifty down," he said. "It'll help pay for the brat's board these last ten years—an' mebby, when it comes to a show-down, I can stick him for a thousand."

The woman made no answer. She was, in a way, past answering with a mind of her own. The man, as he stood there, was wicked and cruel, every line in his ugly face and angular body a line of sin. The woman was bent, broken, a wreck. In her face there was no sign of a living soul. Her eyes were dull, her heart burned out, her hands gnarled with toil under the slavedom of a beast. Yet even Peter, quiet as a mouse where he lay, sensed the difference between them. He had seen the girl and this woman sobbing in each other's arms. And often he had crawled to the woman's feet, and occasionally her hand had touched him, and frequently she had given him things to eat. But it was seldom he heard her voice when the man was near.

The man was biting off a chunk of black tobacco. Suddenly he asked,

"How old is she, Liz?"

And the woman answered in a strange and husky voice.

"Seventeen the twelfth day of this month."

The man spat.

"Mooney ought to pay a thousand. We've had her better'n ten years—an' Mooney's crazy as a loon to git her. He'll pay!"

"Jed—" The woman's voice rose above its hoarseness. "Jed—it ain't right!"

The man laughed. He opened his mouth wide, until his yellow fangs gleamed in the sun, and the girl with the axe paused for a moment in her work, and flung back her head, staring at the two before the cabin door.

"Right?" jeered the man. "Right? That's what you been preachin' me these last ten years 'bout whiskey-runnin,' but it ain't made me stop sellin' whiskey, has it? An' I guess it ain't a word that'll come between Mooney and me—not if Mooney gits his thousand." Suddenly he turned upon her, a hand half raised to strike. "An' if you whisper a word to her—if y' double-cross me so much as the length of your little finger—I'll break every bone in your body, so help me God! You understand? You won't say anything to her?"

The woman's uneven shoulders drooped lower.

"I won't say ennything, Jed. I—promise."

The man dropped his uplifted hand with a harsh grunt.

"I'll kill y' if you do," he warned.

The girl had dropped her axe, and was coming toward them. She was a slim, bird-like creature, with a poise to her head and an up-tilt to her chin which warned that the man had not yet beaten her to the level of the woman. She was dressed in a faded calico, frayed at the bottom, and with the sleeves bobbed off just above the elbows of her slim white arms. Her stockings were mottled with patches and mends, and her shoes were old, and worn out at the toes.

But to Peter, worshipping her from his hiding place, she was the most beautiful thing in the world. Jolly Roger had said the same thing, and most men—and women, too—would have agreed that this slip of a girl possessed a beauty which it would take a long time for unhappiness and torture to crush entirely out of her. Her eyes were as blue as the violets Peter had thrust his nose among that day. And her hair was a glory, loosed by her exertion from its bondage of faded ribbon, and falling about her shoulders and nearly to her waist in a mass of curling brown tresses that at times had made even Jed Hawkins' one eye light of with admiration. And yet, even in those times, he hated her, and more than once his bony fingers had closed viciously in that mass of radiant hair, but seldom could he wring a scream of pain from Nada. Even now, when she could see the light of the devil in his one gleaming eye, it was only her flesh—and not her soul—that was afraid.

But the strain had begun to show its mark. In the blue of her eyes was the look of one who was never free of haunting visions, her cheeks were pallid, and a little too thin, and the vivid redness of her lips was not of health and happiness, but a touch of the color which should have been in her face, and which until now had refused to die.

She faced the man, a little out of the reach of his arm.

"I told you never again to raise your hand to strike her," she cried in a fierce, suppressed little voice, her blue eyes flaming loathing and hatred at him. "If you hit her once more—something is going to happen. If you want to hit anyone, hit me. I kin stand it. But—look at her! You've broken her shoulder, you've crippled her—an' you oughta die!"

The man advanced half a step, his eye ablaze. Deep down in him Peter felt something he had never felt before. For the first time in his life he had no desire to run away from the man. Something rose up from his bony little chest, and grew in his throat, until it was a babyish snarl so low that no human ears could hear it. And in his hiding-place his needle-like fangs gleamed under snarling lips.

But the man did not strike, nor did he reach out to grip his fingers in the silken mass of Nada's hair. He laughed, as if something was choking him, and turned away with a toss of his arms.

"You ain't seein' me hit her any more, are you, Nady?" he said, and disappeared around the end of the cabin.

The girl laid a hand on the woman's arm. Her eyes softened, but she was trembling.

"I've told him what'll happen, an' he won't dare hit you any more," she comforted. "If he does, I'll end him. I will! I'll bring the police. I'll show 'em the places where he hides his whiskey. I'll—I'll put him in jail, if I die for it!"

The woman's bony hands clutched at one of Nada's.

"No, no, you mustn't do that," she pleaded. "He was good to me once, a long time ago, Nada. It ain't Jed that's bad—it's the whiskey. You mustn't tell on him, Nada—you mustn't!"

"I've promised you I won't—if he don't hit you any more. He kin shake me by the hair if he wants to. But if he hits you—"

She drew a deep breath, and also passed around the end of the cabin.

For a few moments Peter listened. Then he slipped back through the tunnel he had made under the wood-vine, and saw Nada walking swiftly toward the break in the ridge. He followed, so quietly that she was through the break, and was picking her way among the tumbled masses of rock along the farther foot of the ridge, before she discovered his presence. With a glad cry she caught him up in her arms and hugged him against her breast.

"Peter, Peter, where have you been?" she demanded. "I thought something had happened to you, and I've been huntin' for you, and so has Roger—I mean Mister Jolly Roger."

Peter was hugged tighter, and he hung limply until his mistress came to a thick little clump of dwarf balsams hidden among the rocks. It was their "secret place," and Peter had come to sense the fact that its mystery was not to be disclosed. Here Nada had made her little bower, and she sat down now upon a thick rug of balsam boughs, and held Peter out in front of her, squatted on his haunches. A new light had come into her eyes, and they were shining like stars. There was a flush in her cheeks, her red lips were parted, and Peter, looking up—and being just dog—could scarcely measure the beauty of her. But he knew that something had happened, and he tried hard to understand.

"Peter, he was here ag'in today—Mister Roger—Mister Jolly Roger," she cried softly, the pink in her cheeks growing brighter. "And he told me I was pretty!"

She drew a deep breath, and looked out over the rocks to the valley and the black forest beyond. And her fingers, under Peter's scrawny armpits, tightened until he grunted.

"And he asked me if he could touch my hair—mind you he asked me that, Peter!—And when I said 'yes' he just put his hand on it, as if he was afraid, and he said it was beautiful, and that I must take wonderful care of it!"

Peter saw a throbbing in her throat.

"Peter—he said he didn't want to do anything wrong to me, that he'd cut off his hand first. He said that! And then he said—if I didn't think it was wrong—he'd like to kiss me—"

She hugged Peter up close to her again.

"And—I told him I guessed it wasn't wrong, because I liked him, and nobody else had ever kissed me, and—Peter—he didn't kiss me! And when he went away he looked so queer—so white-like—and somethin' inside me has been singing ever since. I don't know what it is, Peter. But it's there!"

And then, after a moment.

"Peter," she whispered, "I wish Mister Jolly Roger would take us away!"

The thought drew a tightening to her lips, and the pucker of a frown between her eyes, and she sat Peter down beside her and looked over the valley to the black forest, in the heart of which was Jolly Roger's cabin.

"It's funny he don't want anybody to know he's there, ain't it—I mean—isn't it, Peter?" she mused. "He's livin' in the old shack Indian Tom died in last winter, and I've promised not to tell. He says it's a great secret, and that only you, and I, and the Missioner over at Sucker Creek know anything about it. I'd like to go over and clean up the shack for him. I sure would."

Peter, beginning to nose among the rocks, did not see the flash of fire that came slowly into the blue of the girl's eyes. She was looking at her ragged shoes, at the patched stockings, at the poverty of her faded dress, and her fingers clenched in her lap.

"I'd do it—I'd go away—somewhere—and never come back, if it wasn't for her," she breathed. "She treats me like a witch most of the time, but Jed Hawkins made her that way. I kin remember—"

Suddenly she jumped up, and flung back her head defiantly, so that her hair streamed out in a sun-filled cloud in a gust of wind that came up the valley.

"Some day, I'll kill 'im," she cried to the black forest across the plain. "Some day—I will!"


Chapter 2

 

She followed Peter. For a long time the storm had been gathering in her brain, a storm which she had held back, smothered under her unhappiness, so that only Peter had seen the lightning-flashes of it. But today the betrayal had forced itself from her lips, and in a hard little voice she had told Jolly Roger—the stranger who had come into the black forest—how her mother and father had died of the same plague more than ten years ago, and how Jed Hawkins and his woman had promised to keep her for three silver fox skins which her father had caught before the sickness came. That much the woman had confided in her, for she was only six when it happened. And she had not dared to look at Jolly Roger when she told him of what had passed since then, so she saw little of the hardening in his face as he listened. But he had blown his nose—hard. It was a way with Jolly Roger, and she had not known him long enough to understand what it meant. And a little later he had asked her if he might touch her hair—and his big hand had lain for a moment on her head, as gently as a woman's.

Like a warm glow in her heart still remained the touch of that hand. It had given her a new courage, and a new thrill, just as Peter's vanquishment of unknown monsters that day had done the same for him. Peter was no longer afraid, and the girl was no longer afraid, and together they went along the slope of the ridge, until they came to a dried-up coulee which was choked with a wild upheaval of rock. Here Peter suddenly stopped, with his nose to the ground, and then his legs stiffened, and for the first time the girl heard the babyish growl in his throat. For a moment she stood very still, and listened, and faintly there came to her a sound, as if someone was scraping rock against rock. The girl drew in a quick breath; she stood straighter, and Peter—looking up—saw her eyes flashing, and her lips apart. And then she bent down, and picked up a jagged stick.

"We'll go up, Peter," she whispered. "It's one of his hiding-places!"

There was a wonderful thrill in the knowledge that she was no longer afraid, and the same thrill was in Peter's swiftly beating little heart as he followed her. They went very quietly, the girl on tip-toe, and Peter making no sound with his soft footpads, so that Jed Hawkins was still on his knees, with his back toward them, when they came out into a square of pebbles and sand between two giant masses of rock. Yesterday, or the day before, both Peter and Nada would have slunk back, for Jed was at his devil's work, and only evil could come to the one who discovered him at it. He had scooped out a pile of sand from under the edge of the biggest rock, and was filling half a dozen grimy leather flasks from a jug which he had pulled from the hole. And then he paused to drink. They could hear the liquor gurgling down his throat.

Nada tapped the end of her stick against the rock, and like a shot the man whirled about to face them. His face turned livid when he saw who it was, and he drew himself up until he stood on his feet, his two big fists clenched, his yellow teeth snarling at her.

"You damned—spy!" he cried chokingly. "If you was a man—I'd kill you!"

The girl did not shrink. Her face did not whiten. Two bright spots flamed in her cheeks, and Hawkins saw the triumph shining in her eyes. And there was a new thing in the odd twist of her red lips, as she said tauntingly.

"If I was a man, Jed Hawkins—you'd run!"

He took a step toward her.

"You'd run," she repeated, meeting him squarely, and taking a tighter grip of her stick. "I ain't ever seen you hit anything but a woman, an' a girl, or some poor animal that didn't dare bite back. You're a coward, Jed Hawkins, a low-down, sneakin,' whiskey-sellin' coward—and you oughta die!"

Even Peter sensed the cataclysmic change that had come in this moment between the two big rocks. It held something in the air, like the impending crash of dynamite, or the falling down of the world. He forgot himself, and looked up at his mistress, a wonderful, slim little thing standing there at last unafraid before the future—and in his dog heart and soul a part of the truth came to him, and he planted his big feet squarely in front of Jed Hawkins, and snarled at him as he had never snarled before in his life.

And the bootlegger, for a moment, was stunned, For a while back he had humored the girl a little, to hold her in peace and without suspicion until Mooney was able to turn over her body-money. After that—after he had delivered her to the other's shack—it would all be up to Mooney, he figured. And this was what had come of his peace-loving efforts! She was taking advantage of him, defying him, spying upon him—the brat he had fed and brought up for ten years! Her beauty as she stood there did not hold him back. It was punishment she needed, a beating, a hair-pulling, until there was no breath left in her impudent body. He sprang forward, and Peter let out a wild yip as he saw Nada raise her stick. But she was a moment too slow. The man's hand caught it, and his right hand shot forward and buried itself in the thick, soft mass of her hair.

It was then that something broke loose in Peter. For this day, this hour, this minute the gods of destiny had given him birth. All things in the world were blotted out for him except one—the six inches of naked shank between the bootlegger's trouser-leg and his shoe. He dove in. His white teeth, sharp as stiletto-points, sank into it. And a wild and terrible yell came from Jed Hawkins as he loosed the girl's hair. Peter heard the yell, and his teeth sank deeper in the flesh of the first thing he had ever hated. It was the girl, more than Peter, who realized the horror of what followed. The man bent down and his powerful fingers closed round Peter's scrawny neck, and Peter felt his wind suddenly shut off, and his mouth opened. Then Jed Hawkins drew back the arm that held him, as he would have drawn it back to fling a stone.

With a scream the girl tore at him as his arm straightened out, and Peter went hurtling through the air. Her stick struck him fiercely across the face, and in that same moment there was a sickening, crushing thud as Peter's loosely-jointed little body struck against the face of the great rock. When Nada turned Peter was groveling in the sand, his hips and back broken down, but his bright eyes were on her, and without a whimper or a whine he was struggling to drag himself toward her. Only Jolly Roger could tell the story of how Peter's mother had died for a woman, and in this moment it must have been that her spirit entered into Peter's soul, for the pain of his terrible hurt was forgotten in his desire to drag himself back to the feet of the girl, and die facing her enemy—the man. He did not know that he was dragging his broken body only an inch at a time through the sand. But the girl saw the terrible truth, and with a cry of agony which all of Hawkin's torture could not have wrung from her she ran to him, and fell upon her knees, and gathered him tenderly in her arms. Then, in a flash, she was on her feet, facing Jed Hawkins like a little demon.

"For that—I'll kill you!" she panted. "I will. I'll kill you!"

The blow of her stick had half blinded the bootlegger's one eye, but he was coming toward her. Swift as a bird Nada turned and ran, and as the man's footsteps crunched in the gravel and rock behind her a wild fear possessed her—fear for Peter, and not for herself. Very soon Hawkins was left behind, cursing at the futility of the pursuit, and at the fate that had robbed him of an eye.

Down the coulee and out into the green meadowland of the plain ran Nada, her hair streaming brightly in the sun, her arms clutching Peter to her breast. Peter was whimpering now, crying softly and piteously, just as once upon a time she had heard a baby cry—a little baby that was dying. And her soul cried out in agony, for she knew that Peter, too, was dying. And as she stumbled onward—on toward the black forest, she put her face down to Peter and sobbed over and over again his name.

"Peter—Peter—Peter—"

And Peter, joyous and grateful for her love and the sound of her voice even in these moments, thrust out his tongue and caressed her cheek, and the girl's breath came in a great sob as she staggered on.

"It's all right now, Peter," she crooned. "It's all right, baby. He won't hurt you any more, an' we're goin' across the creek to Mister Roger's cabin, an' you'll be happy there. You'll be happy—"

Her voice choked full, and her mother-heart seemed to break inside her, just as life had gone out of that other mother's heart when the baby died. For their grief, in God's reckoning of things, was the same; and little Peter, sensing the greatness of this thing that had made them one in flesh and blood, snuggled his wiry face closer in her neck, crying softly to her, and content to die there close to the warmth of the creature he loved.

"Don't cry, baby," she soothed. "Don't cry, Peter, dear. It'll soon be all right—all right—" And the sob came again into her throat, and clung there like a choking fist, until they came to the edge of the big forest.

She looked down, and saw that Peter's eyes were closed; and not until then did the miracle of understanding come upon her fully that there was no difference at all between the dying baby's face and dying Peter's, except that one had been white and soft, and Peter's was different—and covered with hair.

"God'll take care o' you, Peter," she whispered. "He will—God, 'n' me, and Mister Roger—"

She knew there was untruth in what she was saying for no one, not even God, would ever take care of Peter again—in life. His still little face and the terrible grief in her own heart told her that. For Peter's back was broken, and he was going—going even now—as she ran moaningly with him through the deep aisles of the forest. But before he died, before his heart stopped beating in her arms, she wanted to reach Jolly Roger's friendly cabin, in the big swamp beyond the creek. It was not that he could save Peter, but something told her that Jolly Roger's presence would make Peter's dying easier, both for Peter and for her, for in this first glad spring of her existence the stranger in the forest shack had brought sunshine and hope and new dreams into her life; and they had set him up, she and Peter, as they would have set up a god on a shrine.

So she ran for the fording place on Sucker Creek, which was a good half mile above the shack in which the stranger was living. She was staggering, and short of wind, when she came to the ford, and when she saw the whirl and rush of water ahead of her she remembered what Jolly Roger had said about the flooding of the creek, and her eyes widened. Then she looked down at Peter, piteously limp and still in her arms, and she drew a quick breath and made up her mind. She knew that at this shallow place the water could not be more than up to her waist, even at the flood-tide. But it was running like a mill-race.

She put her lips down to Peter's fuzzy little face, and held them there for a moment, and kissed him.

"We'll make it, Peter," she whispered. "We ain't afraid, are we, baby? We'll make it—sure—sure—we'll make it—"

She set out bravely, and the current swished about her ankles, to her knees, to her hips. And then, suddenly, unseen hands under the water seemed to rouse themselves, and she felt them pulling and tugging at her as the water deepened to her waist. In another moment she was fighting, fighting to hold her feet, struggling to keep the forces from driving her downstream. And then came the supreme moment, close to the shore for which she was striving. She felt herself giving away, and she cried out brokenly for Peter not to be afraid. And then something drove pitilessly against her body, and she flung out one arm, holding Peter close with the other—and caught hold of a bit of stub that protruded like a handle from the black and slippery log the flood-water had brought down upon her.

"We're all right, Peter," she cried, even in that moment when she knew she had lost. "We're all ri—"

And then suddenly the bright glory of her head went down, and with her went Peter, still held to her breast under the sweeping rush of the flood.

Even then it was thought of Peter that filled her brain. Somehow she was not afraid. She was not terrified, as she had often been of the flood-rush of waters that smashed down the creeks in springtime. An inundating roar was over her, under her, and all about her; it beat in a hissing thunder against the drums of her ears, yet it did not frighten her as she had sometimes been frightened. Even in that black chaos which was swiftly suffocating the life from her, unspoken words of cheer for Peter formed in her heart, and she struggled to hold him to her, while with her other hand she fought to raise herself by the stub of the log to which she clung. For she was not thinking of him as Peter, the dog, but as something greater—something that had fought for her that day, and because of her had died.

Suddenly she felt a force pulling her from above. It was the big log, turning again to that point of equilibrium which for a space her weight had destroyed. In the edge of a quieter pool where the water swirled but did not rush, her brown head appeared, and then her white face, and with a last mighty effort she thrust up Peter so that his dripping body was on the log. Sobbingly she filled her lungs with air. But the drench of water and her hair blinded her so that she could not see. And she found all at once that the strength had gone from her body. Vainly she tried to drag herself up beside Peter, and in the struggle she raised herself a little, so that a low-hanging branch of a tree swept her like a mighty arm from the log.

With a cry she reached out for Peter. But he was gone, the log was gone, and she felt a vicious pulling at her hair, as Jed Hawkins himself had often pulled it, and for a few moments the current pounded against her body and the tree-limb swayed back and forth as it held her there by her hair.

If there was pain from that tugging, Nada did not feel it. She could see now, and thirty yards below her was a wide, quiet pool into which the log was drifting. Peter was gone. And then, suddenly, her heart seemed to stop its beating, and her eyes widened, and in that moment of astounding miracle she forgot that she was hanging by her hair in the ugly lip of the flood, with slippery hands beating and pulling at her from below. For she saw Peter—Peter in the edge of the pool—making his way toward the shore! For a space she could not believe. It must be his dead body drifting. It could not be Peter—swimming! And yet—his head was above the water—he was moving shoreward—he was struggling—

Frantically she tore at the detaining clutch above her. Something gave way. She felt the sharp sting of it, and then she plunged into the current, and swept down with it, and in the edge of the pool struck out with all her last strength until her feet touched bottom, and she could stand. She wiped the water from her eyes, sobbing in her breathless fear—her mighty hope. Peter had reached the shore. He had dragged himself out, and had crumpled down in a broken heap—but he was facing her, his bright eyes wide open and questing for her. Slowly Nada went to him. Until now, when it was all over, she had not realized how helplessly weak she was. Something was turning round and round in her head, and she was so dizzy that the shore swam before her eyes, and it seemed quite right to her that Peter should be alive—and not dead. She was still in a foot of water when she fell on her knees and dragged herself the rest of the way to him, and gathered him in her arms again, close up against her wet, choking breast.

And there the sun shone down upon them, without the shade of a twig overhead; and the water that a little while before had sung of death rippled with its old musical joy, and about them the birds sang, and very near to them a pair of mating red-squirrels chattered and played in a mountain-ash tree. And Nada's hair brightened in the sun, and began to ripple into curls at the end, and Peter's bristling whiskers grew dry—so that half an hour after she had dragged herself out of the water there was a new light in the girl's eyes, and a color in her cheeks that was like the first dawning of summer pink in the heart of a rose.

"We're a'most dry enough to go to Mister Jolly Roger, Peter," she whispered, a little thrill in her voice.

She stood up, and shook out her half dry hair, and then picked up Peter—and winced when he gave a little moan.

"He'll fix you, Peter," she comforted. "An' it'll be so nice over here—with him."

Her eyes were looking ahead, down through the glory of the sun-filled forest, and the song of birds and the beauty of the world filled her soul, and a new and wonderful freedom seemed to thrill in the touch of the soft earth under her feet.

"Flowers," she cried softly. "Flowers, an' birds, an' the sun, Peter—" She paused a moment, as if listening to the throb of light and life about her. And then, "I guess we'll go to Mister Jolly Roger now," she said.

She shook her hair again, so that it shone in a soft and rebellious glory about her, and the violet light grew a little darker in her eyes, and the color a bit deeper in her cheeks as she walked on into the forest over the faintly worn foot-trail that led to the old cabin where Jolly Roger was keeping himself away from the eyes of men.