Read CHAPTER VIII of The Snowshoe Trail , free online book, by Edison Marshall, on ReadCentral.com.

In Virginia’s first moment of wakening she could not distinguish realities from dreams. All the experiences of the night before seemed for the moment only the adventures of a nightmare. But disillusionment came quickly. She opened her eyes to view the cabin walls, and the full dreadfulness of her situation swept her in an instant.

Her tears came first. She couldn’t restrain them, and they were simply the natural expression of her fear and her loneliness and her distress. For long moments she sobbed bitterly, yet softly as she could. But Virginia was of good metal, and in the past few days she had acquired a certain measure of self-discipline. She began to struggle with her tears. They would waken Bill, she thought and she had not forgotten his bravery and his toil of the night before. She conquered them at last, and, miserable and sick of heart, tried to go back to sleep.

Her muscles pained her, her throat was raw from the water, and when she tried to make herself comfortable her limbs were stiff and aching. But she knew she had to look her position in the face. She turned, pains shooting through her frame, and gazed about her.

The cabin, she could see, was rather larger than any of those in which they had camped on their journey. It was well-chinked and sturdy, and even had the luxury of a window. For the moment she didn’t see Bill at all. She wondered if he had gone out. Then, moving nearer to the edge of her cot, she looked over intending to locate the clothes she had taken off the night before. Then she saw him, stretched on the floor in the farthest corner of the room.

He gave the impression of having dropped with exhaustion and fallen to sleep where he lay. She could see that he still wore the tattered overcoat he had found hanging on the wall, and the two blankets were still wrapped about him. He was paying for his magnificent efforts of the night before. Morning was vivid and full at the window, but he still lay in heavy slumber.

She resolved not to call him; and in spite of her own misery, her lips curled in a half-smile. She was vaguely touched; someway the sight of this strong forester, lying so helpless and exhausted in sleep, went straight to some buried instinct within her and found a tenderness, a sweet graciousness that had not in her past life manifested itself too often.

But the tenderness was supplanted by a wave of icy terror. She was a woman, and the thought suddenly came to her that she was wholly in this man’s power, naked except for the blankets around her, unarmed and helpless and lost in the forest depths. What did she know of him? He had been the soul of respect heretofore, but now with her uncle on the other side of the river ; but she checked herself with a revulsion of feeling. The strength that had saved her life would save him against himself. They would find a way to get out to-day; and she thought that this, at least, she need not fear.

He had been busy before he slept. His clothes and hers were hung on nails back of the little stove to dry. He had cut fresh wood, piling it behind the stove. She guessed that he had intended to keep the fire burning the whole night, but sleep had claimed him and disarranged his plans.

His next thought was of supplies. The simple matter of food and warmth is the first issue in the wilderness; already she had learned this lesson. Her eyes glanced about the walls. There were two or three sacks, perhaps filled with provisions, hanging from the ceiling, safely out of the reach of the omnivorous pack-rats that often wreak such havoc in unoccupied cabins. But further than this the place seemed bare of food.

Blankets were in plenty; there were a few kitchen utensils hanging back of the stove, and some sort of an ancient rifle lay across a pair of deer horns. Whether or not there were any cartridges for this latter article she could not say. Strangest of all, a small and battered phonograph, evidently packed with difficulty into the hills, and a small stack of records sat on the crude, wooden table. Evidently a real and fervent love of music had not been omitted from Bill’s make-up.

Then Bill stirred in his sleep. She lay still, watching. She saw his eyes open. And his first glance was toward her.

He flashed her a smile, and she tried pitifully to answer it. “How are you?” he asked.

“Awfully lame and sore and tired. Maybe I’ll be better soon. And you ?”

“A little stiff, not much. I’m hard to damage, Miss Tremont. I’ve seen too much of hardship. But I’ve overslept and there isn’t another second to be lost. I’ve got to dress and go and locate Vosper and Lounsbury.”

“I suppose you’d better right away. They’ll be terribly distressed thinking we’re drowned.” She turned her back to him, without nonsense or embarrassment, and he started to dress. She didn’t see the slow smile, half-sardonic, that was on his lips.

“I’m not worrying about their distress,” he told her. “I only want to be sure and catch them before they give us up for lost and turn back. I can never forgive myself for failing to waken. It was just that I was so tired

“I won’t let you blame yourself for that,” the girl replied, slowly but earnestly. “Besides, Uncle Kenly won’t go away for two or three days at least. He’s been my guardian I’m his ward and I’m sure he’ll make every effort to learn what happened to us.”

“I suppose you’re right. You know whether or not you can trust Lounsbury. I only know that I can’t trust Vosper.”

“They’ll be waiting for us, don’t fear for that,” the girl went on. She tried to put all the assurance she could into her tone. “But how can we get across?”

“That remains to be seen. If they’re there to help, with the horses, we might find a way.” The man finished dressing, then turned to go. “I’m sorry I can’t even take time to light your fire. You must stay in bed, anyway all day.”

He left hurriedly, and as the door opened the wind blew a handful of snow in upon her. The snow had deepened during the night, and fall was heavier than ever. Shivering with cold and aching in every muscle, she got up and put on her underclothing. It was almost dry already. Then, wholly miserable and dejected, she lay down again between her blankets, waiting for Bill’s return. And his step was heavy and slow on the threshold when he came.

She couldn’t interpret the expression on his face when she saw him in the doorway. He was curiously sober and intent, perhaps even a little pale. “Go to sleep, Miss Tremont,” he advised. “I’ll make a fire for breakfast.”

He bent to prepare kindling. The girl swallowed painfully, but shaken with dread shaped her question at last. “What what did you find out?”

He looked squarely into her eyes. “Nothing that you’ll want to hear, Miss Tremont,” he told her soberly. “I went to the river bank and looked across. They they

“They are gone?” the girl cried.

“They’ve pulled freight. I could see the smoke of their fire it was just about out. Not a horse in sight, or a man. There’s no chance for a mistake, I’m afraid. I called and called, but no one answered.”

The tears rushed to the girl’s eyes, but she fought them back. There was an instant of strained silence. “And what does it mean?”

“I don’t know. We’ll get out someway

“Tell me the truth, Bill,” the girl suddenly urged. “I can stand it. I will stand it don’t be afraid to tell me.”

The man looked down at her in infinite compassion. “Poor little girl,” he said. “What do you want to know?”

She didn’t resent the words. She only felt speechlessly grateful and someway comforted, as a baby girl might feel in her father’s arms.

“Does it mean that we’ve lost, after all?”

“Our lives? Not at all.” She read in his face that this, at least, was the truth. “I’ll tell you, Miss Tremont, just what I think it means. If we were on the other side of the river, and we had horses, we could push through and get out easy enough. But we haven’t got horses even Buster is drowned and it would be a hard fight to carry supplies and blankets on our backs, for the long hike down into Bradleyburg. It would likely be too much for you. Besides, the river lays between. In time we might go down to quieter waters and build a raft out of logs but the snow’s coming thicker all the time. Before we could get it done and get across, we couldn’t mush out for the snows have come to stay and we haven’t got snowshoes. We could rig up some kind of snowshoes, I suppose, but until the snow packs we couldn’t make it into town. It’s too long a way and too cold. In soft snow even a strong man can only go a little way you sink a foot and have to lift a load of snow with every step. Every way we look there’s a block. We’re like birds, caught in a cage.”

“But won’t men come to look for us?”

“I’ve been thinking about that. Miss Tremont, they won’t come till spring, and then they’ll likely only half look for us. I know this northern country. Death is too common a thing to cause much stir. Lounsbury will tell them we are drowned no one will believe we could have gotten out of the canyon, dressed like we were and on a night like last night. If they thought we were alive and suffering, the whole male population would take a search party and come to our aid. Instead they know or rather, they think they know that we’re dead. There won’t be any horses, it will be a fool’s errand, and mushing through those feet of soft snow is a job they won’t undertake.”

“But the river will freeze soon.”

“Yes. Even this cataract freezes, but it likely won’t be safe to cross for some weeks maybe clear into January or February. That depends on the weather. You see, Miss Tremont, we don’t have the awful low temperatures early in the winter they get further east and north. We’re on the wet side of the mountains. But we do get the snow, week after week of it when you simply can’t travel, and plenty of thirty and forty, sometimes more, below zero. But the river will freeze if we give it time. And the snow will pack and crust late in the winter. And then, in those clear, cold days, we can make a sled and mush out.”

“And it means we’re tied up here for weeks and maybe months?”

“That’s it. Just as sure as if we had iron chains around our ankles.”

Then the girl’s tears flowed again, unchecked. Bill stood beside her, his shoulders drooping, but in no situation of his life had he ever felt more helpless, more incapable of aid. “Don’t cry,” he pleaded. “Don’t cry, Miss Tremont. I’ll take care of you. Don’t you know I will?”

Her grief rent him to the depths, but there was nothing he could say or do. He drew the blankets higher about her.

“Perhaps you can get some more sleep,” he urged. “Your body’s torn to pieces, of course.”

Fearful and lonely and miserable, the girl cried herself to sleep. Bill sat beside her a long time, and the snow sifted down in the forest and the silence lay over the land. He left her at last, and for a while was busy among the supplies that he found on a shelf behind the stove. And she wakened to find him bending over her.

His face was anxious and his eyes gentle as a woman’s. “Do you think you can eat?” he asked. “I’ve warmed up soup and I’ve got coffee, too.”

He had put the liquids in cups and had drawn the little table beside her bed. She shook her head, but she softened at the swift look of disappointment in his face. “I’ll take some coffee,” she told him.

He held the cup for her, and she drank a little of the bracing liquid. Then she pushed the cup away.

He waited beside a moment, curiously anxious. “Give me your hand,” he said.

“Why?”

Cold was her voice, and cold the expression on her face. It seemed to her that the lines of Bill’s face deepened, and his dark eyes grew stern. But in a moment the expression passed, and she knew she had wounded him. “Why do you think? I want to test your pulse.”

He had seen that she was flushed, and he was in deadly fear that the plunge into the cold waters had worked an organic injury. He took her soft, slender wrist in his hand, and she felt the pressure of his little finger against her pulsing arteries. Then she saw the dark features light up.

“You haven’t any fever,” he told her joyfully. “You’re just used up from the experience. And God knows I can’t blame you. Go to sleep again if you like.”

She dozed off again, and for a little while he was busy outside the cabin, cutting fuel for the night’s blaze. He stole in once to look at her and then turned again down the moose trail to the river. He had been certain before that the others had gone; now he only wanted to make sure.

The long afternoon was at an end when he returned. He had gazed across the gray waters and called again and again, but except for the echo of his shout, the wilderness silence had been inviolate. Virginia was awake, but still miserable and dejected in her blankets. They talked a little, softly and quietly, about their chances, but he saw that she was not yet in a frame of mind to look the situation squarely in the face. Then he cooked the last meal of the day.

“I don’t want anything,” she told him, when again he proffered food. “I only want to die. I wish I had died in the river last night. Months and months in these awful woods and this awful cabin and nothing but death in the end.”

He did not condemn her for the utterance, even in his thoughts. He was imaginative enough to understand her despair and sympathize with it. He remembered the sheltered life she had always lived. Besides, she was his goddess; he could only humble himself before her.

“But I won’t let you die, Miss Tremont. I’ll care for you. You won’t even have to lift your hand, if you don’t want to. You’ll be happier, though, if you do; it would break some of the monotony. There’s a little old phonograph on the stand, and some old magazines under your cot. The weeks will pass someway. And I promise this.” He paused, and his face was gray as ashes. “I won’t impose any more of my company upon you than you wish.”

The response was instantaneous. The girl’s heart warmed; then she flashed him a smile of sympathy and understanding. “Forgive me,” she said. “I’ll try to be brave. I’ll try to stiffen up. I know you’ll do everything you can to get me out. You’re so good to me so kind. And now I only want to go to sleep.”

He watched her, standing by her bed. After all, sleep was the best thing for her to knit her torn nerves and mend her tired body. Besides, the wilderness night was falling. He could see it already, gray against the window pane. The first day of their exile was gone.

“I’ll be all right in the morning,” she told him sleepily. “And maybe it’s for the best after all. At least it gives you a better chance to find Harold and bring him back to me.”

Bill nodded, but he didn’t trust himself to speak.