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Silently they rode through the stir and thresh of the night, the two women and the man. For guidance along the woods trail they must trust to the finer sense of their horses whose heads they could not see in the closed-in murk. A desultory spray fell upon them as the wind wrenched at the boughs overhead, but the rain had ceased. Infinitely high, infinitely potent sounded the imminent tumult of the invisible Powers of the night, on whose sufferance they moved, tiny, obscure, and unharmed. It filled all the distances.
Debouching upon the open desert, they found their range of vision slightly expanded. They could dimly perceive each other. The horses drew closer together. With his flash covered by his poncho, Banneker consulted a compass and altered their course, for he wished to give the station, to which Gardner might have returned, a wide berth. Io moved up abreast of him as he stood, studying the needle. Had he turned the light upward he would have seen that she was smiling. Whether he would have interpreted that smile, whether, indeed, she could have interpreted it herself, is doubtful.
Presently they picked up the line of telegraph poles, well beyond the station, just the faintest suggestion of gaunt rigor against the troubled sky, and skirted them, moving more rapidly in the confidence of assured direction. A very gradual, diffused alleviation of the darkness began to be felt. The clouds were thinning. Something ahead of them hissed in a soft, full, insistent monosonance. Banneker threw up a shadowy arm. They dismounted on the crest of a tiny desert clifflet, now become the bank of a black current which nuzzled and nibbled into its flanks.
Io gazed intently at the flood which was to deliver her out of the hands of the Philistine. How far away the other bank of the newborn stream might be, she could only guess from the vague rush in her ears. The arroyo's water slipped ceaselessly, objectlessly away from beneath her strained vision, smooth, suave, even, effortless, like the process of some unhurried and mighty mechanism. Now and again a desert plant, uprooted from its arid home, eddied joyously past her, satiated for once of its lifelong thirst; and farther out she thought to have a glimpse of some dead and whitish animal. But these were minor blemishes on a great, lustrous ribbon of silken black, unrolled and re-rolled from darkness into darkness.
"It's beckoning us," said Io, leaning to Banneker, her hand on his shoulder.
"We must wait for more light," he answered.
"Will you trust yourself to that?" asked Camilla Van Arsdale, with a gesture of fear and repulsion toward the torrent.
"Anywhere!" returned Io. There was exaltation in her voice.
"I can't understand it," cried the older woman. "How do you know what may lie before you?"
"That is the thrill of it."
"There may be death around the first curve. It's so unknown; so secret and lawless."
"Ah, and I'm lawless!" cried Io. "I could defy the gods on a night like this!"
She flung her arms aloft, in a movement of sweet, wild abandon, and, as if in response to an incantation, the sky was reft asunder and the moon rushed forth, free for the moment of the clutching clouds, fugitive, headlong, a shining Maenad of the heavens, surrounded by the rush and whirl that had whelmed earth and its waters and was hurrying them to an unknown, mad destiny.
"Now we can see our way," said Banneker, the practical.
He studied the few rods of sleek, foamless water between him and the farther bank, and, going to the steel boat which Mindle had brought to the place on the hand car, took brief inventory of its small cargo. Satisfied, he turned to load in Io's few belongings. He shipped the oars.
"I'll let her go stem-first," he explained; "so that I can see what we're coming to and hold her if there's trouble."
"But can you see?" objected Miss Van Arsdale, directing a troubled look at the breaking sky.
"If we can't, we'll run her ashore until we can."
He handed Io the flashlight and the map.
"You'll want me in the bow seat if we're traveling reversed," said she.
He assented. "Good sailorwoman!"
"I don't like it," protested Miss Van Arsdale. "It's a mad business. Ban, you oughtn't to take her."
"It's too late to talk of that," said Io.
"Ready?" questioned Banneker.
He pushed the stern of the boat into the stream, and the current laid it neatly and powerfully flat to the sheer bank. Io kissed Camilla Van Arsdale quickly and got in.
"We'll wire you from Miradero," she promised. "You'll find the message in the morning."
The woman, mastering herself with a difficult effort, held out her hand to Banneker.
"If you won't be persuaded," she said, "then good--"
"No," he broke in quickly. "That's bad luck. We shall be all right."
"Good luck, then," returned his friend, and turned away into the night.
Banneker, with one foot in the boat, gave a little shove and caught up his oars. An unseen hand of indeterminable might grasped the keel and moved them quietly, evenly, outward and forward, puppets given into the custody of the unregarding powers. Oars poised and ready, Ban sat with his back toward his passenger, facing watchfully downstream.
Leaning back into the curve of the bow, Io gave herself up to the pulsing sweep of the night. Far, far above her stirred a cosmic tumult. The air might have been filled with vast wings, invisible and incessant in the night of wonders. The moon plunged headlong through the clouds, now submerged, now free, like a strong swimmer amidst surf. She moved to the music of a tremendous, trumpeting note, the voice of the unleashed Spring, male and mighty, exulting in his power, while beneath, the responsive, desirous earth thrilled and trembled and was glad.
The boat, a tiny speck on the surface of chaos, darted and checked and swerved lightly at the imperious bidding of unguessed forces, reaching up from the depths to pluck at it in elfish sportiveness. Only when Ban thrust down the oar-blades, as he did now and again to direct their course or avoid some obstacle, was Io made sensible, through the jar and tremor of the whole structure, how swiftly they moved. She felt the spirit of the great motion, of which they were a minutely inconsiderable part, enter into her soul. She was inspired of it, freed, elated, glorified. She lifted up her voice and sang. Ban, turning, gave her one quick look of comprehension, then once more was intent and watchful of their master and servitor, the flood.
"Ban," she called.
He tossed an oar to indicate that he had heard.
"Come back and sit by me."
He seemed to hesitate.
"Let the boat go where it wants to! The river will take care of us. It's a good river, and so strong! I think it loves to have us here."
Ban shook his head.
"'Let the great river bear us to the sea,'" sang Io in her fresh and thrilling voice, stirring the uttermost fibers of his being with delight. "Ban, can't you trust the river and the night and--and the mad gods? I can."
Again he shook his head. In his attitude she sensed a new concentration upon something ahead. She became aware of a strange stir that was not of the air nor the water.
"Hush--sh--sh--sh--sh!" said something unseen, with an immense effect of restraint and enforced quiet.
The boat slewed sharply as Banneker checked their progress with a downthrust of oars. He edged in toward the farther bank which was quite flat, studying it with an eye to the most favoring spot, having selected which, he ran the stern up with several hard shoves, leapt out, hauled the body of the craft free from the balked and snatching current, and held out a hand to his passenger.
"What is it?" she asked as she joined him.
"I don't know. I'm trying to think where I've heard that noise before." He pondered. "Ah, I've got it! It was when I was out on the coast in the big rains, and a few million tons of river-bank let go all holds and smushed down into the stream.... What's on your map?"
He bent over it, conning its detail by the light of the flash which she turned on.
"We should be about here," he indicated, touching the paper, "I'll go ahead and take a look."
"Shan't I go with you?"
"Better stay quiet and get all the rest you can."
He was gone some twenty minutes. "There's a big, fresh-looking split-off in the opposite bank," he reported; "and the water looks fizzy and whirly around there. I think we'll give her a little time to settle. A sudden shift underneath might suck us down. The water's rising every minute, which makes it worth while waiting. Besides, it's dark just now."
"Do you believe in fate?" asked the girl abruptly, as he seated himself on the sand beside her. "That's a silly, schoolgirl thing to say, isn't it?" she added. "But I was thinking of this boat being there in the middle of the dry desert, just when we needed it most."
"It had been there some time," pointed out Banneker. "And if we couldn't have come this way, I'd have found some other."
"I believe you would," crowed Io softly.
"So, I don't believe in fate; not the ready-made kind. Things aren't that easy. If I did--"
"If you did?" she prompted as he paused.
"I'd get back into the boat with you and throw away the oars."
"I dare you!" she cried recklessly.
"We'd go whirling and spinning along," he continued with dreams in his voice, "until dawn came, and then we'd go ashore and camp."
"How should I know? In the Enchanted Canyon where it enters the Mountains of Fulfillment.... They're not on this map."
"They're not on any map. More's the pity. And then?"
"Then we'd rest. And after that we'd climb to the Plateau Beyond the Clouds where the Fadeless Gardens are, and there..."
"There we'd hear the Undying Voices singing."
"Should we sing, too?"
"Of course. 'For they who attain these heights, through pain of upward toil and the rigors of abstention, are as the demigods, secure above evil and the fear thereof.'"
"I don't know what that is, but I hate the 'upward toil' part of it, and the 'abstention' even more. We ought to be able to become demigods without all that, just because we wish it. In a fairy-tale, anyway. I don't think you're a really competent fairy-tale-monger, Ban."
"You haven't let me go on to the 'live happy ever after' part," he complained.
"Ah, that's the serpent, the lying, poisoning little serpent, always concealed in the gardens of dreams. They don't, Ban; people don't live happy ever after. I could believe in fairy-tales up to that point. Just there ugly old Experience holds up her bony finger--she's a horrid hag, Ban, but we'd all be dead or mad without her--and points to the wriggling little snake."
"In my garden," said he, "she'd have shining wings and eyes that could look to the future as well as to the past, and immortal Hope for a lover. It would be worth all the toil and the privation."
"Nobody ever made up a Paradise," said the girl fretfully, "but what the Puritan in him set the road with sharp stones and bordered it with thorns and stings.... Look, Ban! Here's the moon come back to us.... And see what's laughing at us and our dreams."
On the crest of a sand-billow sprawled a huge organ-cactus, brandishing its arms in gnomish derision of their presence.
"How can one help but believe in foul spirits with that thing to prove their existence?" she said. "And, look! There's the good spirit in front of that shining cloud."
She pointed to a yucca in full, creamy flower; a creature of unearthly purity in the glow of the moon, a dream-maiden beckoning at the gates of darkness to a world of hidden and ineffable beauty.
"When I saw my first yucca in blossom," said Banneker, "it was just before sunrise after I had been riding all night, and I came on it around a dip in the hills, standing alone against a sky of pearl and silver. It made me think of a ghost, the ghost of a girl who had died too young to know womanhood, died while she was asleep and dreaming pale, soft dreams, never to be fulfilled."
"That's the injustice of death," she answered. "To take one before one knows and has felt and been all that there is to know and feel and be."
"Yet"--he turned a slow smile to her--"you were just now calling Experience bad names; a horrid hag, wasn't it?"
"At least, she's life," retorted the girl.
"Yes. She's life."
"Ban, I want to go on. The whole universe is in motion. Why must we stand still?"
They reembarked. The grip of the hurrying depths took them past crinkly water, lustrously bronze in the moonlight where the bank had given way, and presently delivered them, around the shoulder of a low, brush-crowned bluff, into the keeping of a swollen creek. Here the going was more tricky. There were shoals and whirls at the bends, and plunging flotsam to be avoided. Banneker handled the boat with masterly address, easing her through the swift passages, keeping her, with a touch here and a dip there, to the deepest flow, swerving adroitly to dodge the trees and brush which might have punctured the thin metal. Once he cried out and lunged at some object with an unshipped oar. It rolled and sank, but not before Io had caught the contour of a pasty face. She was startled rather than horrified at this apparition of death. It seemed an accessory proper to the pattern of the bewitched night.
Through a little, silvered surf of cross-waves, they were shot, after an hour of this uneasy going, into the broad, clean sweep of the Little Bowleg River. After the troubled progress of the lesser current it seemed very quiet and secure; almost placid. But the banks slipped by in an endless chain. Presently they came abreast of three horsemen riding the river trail, who urged their horses into a gallop, keeping up with them for a mile or more. As they fell away, Io waved a handkerchief at them, to which they made response by firing a salvo from their revolvers into the air.
"We're making better than ten miles an hour," Banneker called over his shoulder to his passenger.
They shot between the split halves of a little, scraggly, ramshackle town, danced in white water where the ford had been, and darted onward. Now Banneker began to hold against the current, scanning the shores until, with a quick wrench, he brought the stern around and ran it up on a muddy bit of strand.
"Grub!" he announced gayly.
Languor had taken possession of Io, the languor of one who yields to unknown and fateful forces. Passive and at peace, she wanted nothing but to be wafted by the current to whatever far bourne might await her. That there should be such things as railway trains and man-made schedules in this world of winds and mystery and the voice of great waters, was hard to believe; hardly worth believing in any case. Better not to think of it: better to muse on her companion, building fire as the first man had built for the first woman, to feed and comfort her in an environment of imminent fears.
Coffee, when her man brought it, seemed too artificial for the time and place. She shook her head. She was not hungry.
"You must," insisted Ban. He pointed downstream where the murk lay heavy. "We shall run into more rain. You will need the warmth and support of food."
So, because there were only they two on the face of the known earth, woman and man, the woman obeyed the man. To her surprise, she found that she was hungry, ardently hungry. Both ate heartily. It was a silent meal; little spoken except about the chances and developments of the journey, until she got to her feet. Then she said:
"I shall never, as long as I live, wherever I go, whatever I do, know anything like this again. I shall not want to. I want it to stand alone."
"It will stand alone," he answered.
They met the rain within half an hour, a wall-like mass of it. It blotted out everything around them. The roar of it cut off sound, as the mass of it cut off sight. Fortunately the boat was now going evenly as in an oiled groove. By feeling, Io knew that her guide was moving from his seat, and guessed that he was bailing. The spare poncho, put in by Miss Van Arsdale, protected her. She was jubilant with the thresh of the rain in her face, the sweet, smooth motion of the boat beneath her, the wild abandon of the night, which, entering into her blood, had transmuted it into soft fire.
How long she crouched, exultant and exalted, under the beat of the storm, she could not guess. She half emerged from her possession with a strange feeling that the little craft was being irresistibly drawn forward and downward in what was now a suction rather than a current. At the same time she felt the spring and thrust of Banneker's muscles, straining at the oars. She dipped a hand into the water. It ridged high around her wrists with a startling pressure. What was happening?
Through the uproar she could dimly hear Ban's voice. He seemed to be swearing insanely. Dropping to her hands and knees, for the craft was now swerving and rocking, she crept to him.
"The dam! The dam! The dam!" he shouted. "I'd forgotten about it. Go back. Turn on the flash. Look for shore."
Against rather than into that impenetrable enmeshment of rain, the glow dispersed itself ineffectually. Io sat, not frightened so much as wondering. Her body ached in sympathy with the panting, racking toil of the man at the oars, the labor of an indomitable pigmy, striving to thwart a giant's will. Suddenly he shouted. The boat spun. Something low and a shade blacker than the dull murk about them, with a white, whispering ripple at its edge, loomed. The boat's prow drove into soft mud as Banneker, all but knocking her overboard in his dash, plunged to the land and with one powerful lift, brought boat and cargo to safety.
For a moment he leaned, gasping, against a stump. When he spoke, it was to reproach himself bitterly.
"We must have come through the town. There's a dam below it. I'd forgotten it. My God! If we hadn't had the luck to strike shore."
"Is it a high dam?" she asked.
"In this flood we'd be pounded to death the moment we were over. Listen! You can hear it."
The rain had diminished a little. Above its insistence sounded a deeper, more formidable beat and thrill.
"We must be quite close to it," she said.
"A few rods, probably. Let me have the light. I want to explore before we start out."
Much sooner than she had expected, he was back. He groped for and took her hand. His own was steady, but his voice shook as he said:
"It's the first time you've called me that. Well, Ban?"
"Can you stand it to--to have me tell you something?"
"We're not on the shore."
"Where, then? An island?"
"There aren't any islands here. It must be a bit of the mainland cut off by the flood."
"I'm not afraid, if that's what you mean. We can stand it until dawn."
A wavelet lapped quietly across her foot. She withdrew it and with that involuntary act came understanding. Her hand, turning in his, pressed close, palm cleaving to palm.
"How much longer?" she asked in a whisper.
"Not long. It's just a tiny patch. And the river is rising every minute."
"How long?" she persisted.
"Perhaps two hours. Perhaps less. My good God! If there's any special hell for criminal fools, I ought to go to it for bringing you to this," he burst out in agony.
"I brought you. Whatever there is, we'll go to it together."
"You're wonderful beyond all wonders. Aren't you afraid?"
"I don't know. It isn't so much fear, though I dread to think of that hammering-down weight of water."
"Don't!" he cried brokenly. "I can't bear to think of you--" He lifted his head sharply. "Isn't it lightening up? Look! Can you see shore? We might be quite near."
She peered out, leaning forward. "No; there's nothing." Her hand turned within his, released itself gently. "I'm not afraid," she said, speaking clear and swift. "It isn't that. But I'm--rebellious. I hate the idea of it, of ending everything; the unfairness of it. To have to die without knowing the--the realness of life. Unfulfilled. It isn't fair," she accused breathlessly. "Ban, it's what we were saying. Back there on the river-bank where the yucca stands. I don't want to go--I can't bear to go--before I've known ... before...."
Her arms crept to enfold him. Her lips sought his, tremulous, surrendering, demanding in surrender. With all the passion and longing that he had held in control, refusing to acknowledge even their existence, as if the mere recognition of them would have blemished her, he caught her to him. He heard her, felt her sob once. The roar of the cataract was louder, more insistent in his ears ... or was it the rush of the blood in his veins?... Io cried out, a desolate and hungry cry, for he had wrenched his mouth from hers. She could feel the inner man abruptly withdrawn, concentrated elsewhere. She opened her eyes upon an appalling radiance wherein his face stood out clear, incredulous, then suddenly eager and resolute.
"It's a headlight!" he cried. "A train! Look, Io! The mainland. It's only a couple of rods away."
He slipped from her arms, ran to the boat.
"What are you going to do?" she called weakly. "Ban! You can never make it."
"I've got to. It's our only chance."
As he spoke, he was fumbling under the seat. He brought out a coil of rope. Throwing off poncho, coat, and waistcoat, he coiled the lengths around his body.
"Let me swim with you," she begged.
"You're not strong enough."
"I don't care. We'd go together ... I--I can't face it alone, Ban."
"You'll have to. Or give up our only chance of life. You must, Io. If I shouldn't get across, you may try it; the chances of the current might help you. But not until after you're sure I haven't made it. You must wait."
"Yes," she said submissively.
"As soon as I get to shore, I'll throw the rope across to you. Listen for it. I'll keep throwing until it strikes where you can get it."
"I'll give you the light."
"That may help. Then you make fast under the forward seat of the boat. Be sure it's tight."
"Twitch three times on the rope to let me know when you're ready and shove out and upstream as strongly as you can."
"Can you hold it against the current?"
"I must. If I do, you'll drift around against the bank. If I don't--I'll follow you."
"No, Ban," she implored. "Not you, too. There's no need--"
"I'll follow you," said he. "Now, Io."
He kissed her gently, stepped back, took a run and flung himself upward and outward into the ravening current.
She saw a foaming thresh that melted into darkness....
Time seemed to have stopped for her. She waited, waited, waited in a world wherein only Death waited with her.... Ban was now limp and lifeless somewhere far downstream, asprawl in the swiftness, rolling a pasty face to the sky like that grisly wayfarer who had hailed them silently in the upper reach of the river, a messenger and prophet of their fate. The rising waters eddied about her feet. The boat stirred uneasily. Mechanically she drew it back from the claim of the flood. A light blow fell upon her cheek and neck.
It was the rope.
Instantly and intensely alive, Io tautened it and felt the jerk of Ban's signal. With expert hands she made it fast, shipped the oars, twitched the cord thrice, and, venturing as far as she dared into the deluge, pushed with all her force and threw herself over the stern.
The rope twanged and hummed like a gigantic bass-string. Io crawled to the oars, felt the gunwale dip and right again, and, before she could take a stroke, was pressed against the far bank. She clambered out and went to Banneker, guiding herself by the light. His face, in the feeble glow, shone, twisted in agony. He was shaking from head to foot. The other end of the rope which had brought her to safety was knotted fast around his waist.... So he would have followed, as he said!
Through Io's queer, inconsequent brain flitted a grotesque conjecture: what would the newspapers make of it if she had been found, washed up on the river-bank, and the Manzanita agent of the Atkinson and St. Philip Railroad Company drowned and haltered by a long tether to his boat, near by? A sensational story!...
She went to Banneker, still helplessly shaking, and put her firm, slight hands on his shoulders.
"It's all right, Ban," she said soothingly. "We're out of it."
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