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Chapter 25

Lane was returning from a restless wandering in the woods. As he neared the flooded river he thought he heard a shout for help. He hurried down to the bank, and looked around him, but saw no living thing. Then he was brought up sharply by a cry, the unmistakable scream of a human being in distress. It seemed to come from behind a boathouse. Running as far round the building as the water would permit he peered up and down the river in both directions.

At first he saw only the half-submerged float, the sunken hull of a launch, the fast-running river, and across the wide expanse of muddy water the outline of the levee. Suddenly he spied out in the river a piece of driftwood to which a man was clinging.

"Help! Help!" came faintly over the water.

Lane glanced quickly about him. Several boats were pulled up on the shore, one of which evidently had been used by a boatman collecting driftwood that morning, for it contained oars and a long pike-pole. The boat was long, wide of beam, and flat of bottom, with a sharp bow and a blunt stern, a craft such as experienced rivermen used for heavy work. Without a moment's hesitation Lane shoved it into the water and sprang aboard.

Meanwhile, short though the time had been, the log with its human freight had disappeared beyond the open space in the willows.

Although Lane pulled a powerful stroke, when he got out of the slack water into the current, so swift was it that the boat sheered abruptly and went down stream with a sweep. Marking the piece of driftwood and aided by the swiftly running stream Lane soon overhauled it.

The log which the man appeared to be clutching was a square piece of timber, probably a beam of a bridge, for it was long and full of spikes. When near enough Lane saw that the fellow was not holding on but was helpless and fast on the spikes. His head and arms were above water.

Lane steered the boat alongside and shouted to the man. As he made no outcry or movement, Lane, after shipping the oars, reached over and grasped his collar. Steadying himself, so as not to overturn the boat, Lane pulled him half-way over the gunwale, and then with a second effort, he dragged him into the boat.

The man evidently had fainted after his last outcry. His body slipped off the seat and flopped to the bottom of the boat where it lay with the white face fully exposed to the glare of the sun. A broad scar, now doubly sinister in the pallid face, disfigured the brow.

Lane recoiled from the well-remembered features of Richard Swann.

"God Almighty!" he cried. And his caustic laughter rolled out over the whirling waters. The boat, now disengaged from the driftwood, floated swiftly down the river.

Lane stared in bewilderment at Swann's pale features. His amazement at being brought so strangely face to face with this man made him deaf to the increasing roar of the waters and blind to the greater momentum of the boat.

A heavy thump, a grating sound and splintering of wood, followed by a lurch of the boat and a splashing of cold water in his face brought Lane back to a realization of the situation.

He looked up from the white face of the unconscious man. The boat had turned round. He saw a huge stone that poked its ugly nose above the water. He turned his face down stream. A sea of irregular waves, twisting currents, dark, dangerous rocks and patches of swirling foam met his gaze.

When Lane stood up, with a boatman's instinct, to see the water far ahead, the spectacle thrilled him. A yellow flood, in changeful yet consistent action, rolled and whirled down the wide incline between the stony banks, and lost itself a mile below in a smoky veil of mist. Visions of past scenes whipped in and out his mind, and he saw an ocean careening and frothing under a golden moon; a tide sweeping down, curdled with sand, a grim stream of silt, rushing on with the sullen sweep of doom and the wildfire of the prairie, leaping, cavorting, reaching out, turning and shooting, irresistibly borne under the lash of the wind. He saw in the current a live thing freeing itself in terror.

A roar, like the blending of a thousand storms among the pines, filled his ears and muffled his sense of hearing and appalled him. He sat down with his cheeks blanching, his skin tightening, his heart sinking, for in that roar he heard death. Escape was impossible. The end he had always expected was now at hand. But he was not to meet it alone. The man who had ruined his sister and so many others must go to render his accounting, and in this justice of fate Lane felt a wretched gratification.

The boat glanced with a hard grind on a rock and shot down a long yellow incline; a great curling wave whirled back on Lane; a heavy shock sent him flying from his seat; a gurgling demoniacal roar deafened his ears and a cold eager flood engulfed him. He was drawn under, as the whirlpool sucks a feather; he was tossed up, as the wind throws a straw. The boat bobbed upright near him. He grasped the gunwale and held on.

It bounced on the buffeting waves and rode the long swells like a cork; it careened on the brink of falls and glided over them; it thumped on hidden stones and floating logs; it sped by black-nosed rocks; it drifted through fogs of yellow mist; it ran on piles of driftwood; it trembled with the shock of beating waves and twisted with the swirling current.

Still Lane held on with a vise-like clutch.

Suddenly he seemed to feel some mighty propelling force under him; he rose high with the stern of the boat. Then the bow pitched down into a yawning hole. A long instant he and the boat slid down a glancing fall--then thunderous roar--furious contending wrestle--cold, yellow, flying spray--icy, immersing, enveloping blackness!

A giant tore his hands from the boat. He whirled round and round as he sank. A languid softness stole over him. He saw the smile of his mother, the schoolmate of his boyhood, the old attic where he played on rainy days, and the spotted cows in the pasture and the running brook. He saw himself a tall young man, favorite of all, winning his way in life that was bright.

Then terrible blows of his heart hammered at his ribs, throbs of mighty pain burst his brain; great constrictions of his throat choked him. He began fighting the encompassing waters with frenzied strength. Up and up he fought his way to see at last the light, to gasp at the air. But the flood sucked at him, a weight pulled at his feet. As he went down again something hard struck him. With the last instinctive desperate love of life in his action he flung out his hand and grasped the saving thing. It was the boat. He hooked his elbow over the gunwale. Then darkness filmed over his eyes and he seemed to feel himself whirling round and round, round and round. A long time, seemingly, he whirled, while the darkness before his eyes gave way to smoky light, his dead ears awoke to confused blur of sound. But the weight on his numb legs did not lessen.

All at once the boat grated on a rock, and his knees struck. He lay there holding on while life and sense seemed to return. Something black and awful retreated. Then the rush and roar of the rapids was again about him. He saw that he had drifted into a back eddy behind the ledge of rock, and had whirled slowly round and round with a miscellaneous collection of driftwood.

Lane steadied himself on the slippery ledge and got to his feet. The boat was half full of water, out of which Swarm's ghastly face protruded. By dint of great effort Lane pulled it sideways on the ledge, and turned most of the water out.

Swann lay limp and sodden. But for his eyes he would have appeared dead, and they shone with a conscious light of terror, of passionate appeal and hope, the look with which a man prayed for his life. Presently his lips moved imperceptibly. "Save me! for God's sake, save me!"

Shuddering emotion that had the shock of electricity shook Lane. In his ears again rang the sullen, hollow, reverberating boom of the flood. Here was the man who had done most to harm him, begging to be saved. Swann, poor wretch, was afraid to die; he feared the unknown; he had a terror of that seething turmoil of waters; he could not face the end of that cold ride. Why?

"Fool!" Lane cried, glaring wildly about him. Was it another dream? Unreality swayed him again. He heard the roar, he saw the splitting white-crested waves, the clouds of yellow vapor. He beat his numb legs and shook himself like a savage dog. Then he made a discovery--in some way he could not account for, the oars had remained in the boat. They had been loose in their oar-locks.

Questions formed in Lane's mind, questions that seemed put by a dawning significance. Why had he heard the cry for help? Why had he found the boat? Why had the drowning man proved to be one of two men on earth he hated, one of the two men whom he wanted to kill? Why had he drifted into the rapids? Why had he come safely through a vortex of death? Why had Swann's lips formed that prayer? Why had the oars remained in the boat?

Far below over the choppy sea of waves he saw a bridge. It was his old familiar resting place. Through the white enveloping glow he seemed to see himself standing on that bridge. Then came to him a strange revelation. Yesterday he had stood on that bridge, after seeing Blair for the last time. He had stood there while he lived through an hour of the keenest anguish that had come to him; and in that agony he had watched the plunging river. He had watched it with eyes that could never forget. His mind, exquisitely alive, with the sensibility of a plexus of racked and broken nerves, had taken up every line, every channel and stone and rapid of that flood, and had engraved them in ineffaceable characters. With the unintelligible vagary of thought, while his breast seemed crushed, his heart broken, he had imagined himself adrift on that surging river, and he had planned his escape through the rapids.

As Lane stood on the ledge, knee-deep in the water, with the certainty that he had a perfect photograph of the field of tumbling waters below in his mind's eye, a strange voice seemed to whisper in his ear.

"This is your great trial!"

Without further hesitation he shoved the boat off the ledge.

Round and round the back eddy he floated. At the outlet on the down-stream side, where the gleaming line of foam marked the escape of water into the on-rushing current, he whirled his boat, stern ahead. Down he shot with a plunge and then up with a rise. Racing on over the uneven swells he felt the hissing spray, and the malignant tips of the waves that broke their fury on the boat and expended it in a shower of stinging drops. The wind cut his face. He rode a sea of foam, then turgid rolling mounds of water that heaved him up and up, and down long planes that laughed with hollow boom, then into channels of smooth current, where the torrent wreathed the black stones in yellowish white.

Lane saw the golden sun, the blue sky, the fleecy clouds, the red and purple of the colored hills; and felt his chest expand with the mounting glory of great effort. The muscles of his back and arms, strengthened by the long toil with his heavy axe, rippled and swelled and burned, and stretched like rubber cords, and strung tight like steel bands. The boat was a toy.

He rodes the waves, and threaded a labyrinth of ugly stones, and shot an unobstructed channel, and evaded a menacing drift. The current carried him irresistibly onward. When his keen eye caught danger ahead he sunk the oars deep and pulled back. A powerful stroke made the boat pause, another turned her bow to the right or left, then the swift water hitting her obliquely sheered her in the safe direction. So Lane kept afloat through the spray that smelled fresh and dank, through the crash and surge and roar and boom, through the boiling caldron.

The descent quickened. On! On! he was borne with increasing velocity. The yellow demons rose in fury. Boo--oom! Boo--oom! The old river god voiced his remorseless roar. The shrill screaming shriek of splitting water on sharp stones cut into the boom. On! On! Into the yellow mist that might have been smoke from hell streaked the boat, out upon a curving billow, then down! down! upon an upheaving curl of frothy water. The river, like a huge yellow mound, hurled its mass at Lane. All was fog and steam and whistling spray and rumble.

At length the boat swept out into the open with a long plunge over the last bit of roughened water. Here the current set in a curve to the left, running off the rocky embankment into the natural channel of the river. The dam was now only a couple of hundred yards distant. The water was smooth and the drift had settled to a slow, ponderous, sliding movement.

Lane pulled powerfully against the current and toward the right-hand shore. That was closest. Besides, he remembered a long sluice at the end of the dam where the water ran down as on a mill-race. If he could row into that!

In front of Lane, extending some distance, was a broad unbroken expanse of water leading to the dam. A tremendous roar issued from that fall. The muddy spray and mist rose high. To drift over there would be fatal. Logs and pieces of debris were kept rolling there for hours before some vagary of current caught them and released them.

Lane calculated the distance with cunning eye. He had been an expert boatman all his boyhood days. By the expenditure of his last bit of reserve strength he could make the sluice. And he redoubled his efforts to such an extent that the boat scarcely went down stream at all, yet edged closer to the right hand shore. Lane saw a crowd of people on the bridge below the dam. They were waving encouragement. He saw men run down the steep river bank below the mill; and he knew they were going to be ready to assist him if he were fortunate enough to ride down the sluice into the shallow backwater on that side.

Rowing now with the most powerful of strokes, Lane kept the bow of the boat upstream and a little to the right. Thus he gained more toward the shore. But he must time the moment when it would be necessary to turn sharply.

"I can--make--it," muttered Lane. He felt no excitement. The thing had been given him to do. His strokes were swift, but there was no hurry.

Suddenly he felt a strange catching of breath in his lungs. He coughed. Blood, warm and salt, welled up from his throat. Then his bitter, strangled cry went out over the waters. At last he understood the voices of the river.

Lane quickened his strokes. He swung the bow in. He pointed it shoreward. Straight for the opening of the sluice! His last strokes were prodigious. The boat swung the right way and shot into the channel. Lane dropped his oars. He saw men below wading knee-deep in the water. The boat rode the incline, down to the long swell and curled yellow billows below, where it was checked with violent shock. Lane felt himself propelled as if into darkness.

When Lane opened his eyes he recognized as through a veil the little parlor of the Idens. All about him seemed dim and far away. Faces and voices were there, indistinguishable. A dark cloud settled over his eyes. He dreamed but could not understand the dreams. The black veil came and went.

What was the meaning of the numbness of his body? The immense weight upon his breast! Then it seemed he saw better, though he could not move. Sunlight streamed in at the window. Outside were maple leaves, gold and red and purple, swaying gently. Then a great roaring sound seemed to engulf him. The rapids? The voice of the river.

Then Mel was there kneeling beside him. All save her face grew vague.

"Swann?" he whispered.

"You saved his life," said Mel.

"Ah!" And straightway he forgot. "Mel--what's--wrong--with me?"

Mel's face was like white marble and her hands on his trembled violently. She could not answer. But he knew. There seemed to be a growing shadow in the room. Her eyes held a terrible darkness.

"Mel, I--never told--you," he whispered. "I married you--because I loved you.... But I was--jealous.... I hated.... I couldn't forgive. I couldn't understand.... Now I know. There's a law no woman--can transgress. Soul and love are the same--in a woman. They must be inviolable.... If I could have lived--I'd have surrendered to you. For I loved you--beyond words to tell. It was love that made me well.... But we could not have been happy. Never, with that spectre between us.... And, so--it must be--always.... In spite of war--and wealth--in spite of men--women must rise...."

His voice failed, and again the strange rush and roar enveloped him. But it seemed internal, dimmer and farther away. Mel's face was fading. She spoke. And her words were sweet, without meaning. Then the fading grayness merged into night.


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Zane Grey

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