Kings in Exile - Part 6

Part 6

With his fork and his booted foot he threw himself upon the combatants furiously, striving to separate them. After what seemed to Kane an age he succeeded in forcing off the second puma and driving it through the gate, which he shut. Then he returned to the fight.

But he had little more to do now, for the fight was over. Though no wolf is supposed to be a fair match for a puma, the Gray Master, with his enormous strength and subtle craft, might perhaps have held his own against his first antagonist alone. But against the two he was powerless. The puma, badly torn, now crouched snarling upon his unresisting body. Biddell forced the victor off and drove him into a corner, where he lay lashing his sides with heavy, twitching tail.

The keeper was sober enough now. One long look at the great wolf's body satisfied him it was all over. He turned and saw Kane's white face pressed against the bars. With a short laugh he shook himself, to make sure he was all sound, then pushed the body of the Gray Master gently with his foot. Yet there was respect, not disrespect, in the gesture.

"I wouldn't have had that happen for a thousand dollars, Mr. Kane!"

said he in a voice of keen regret. "That was a great beast, an' we'll never get another wolf to match him."

Kane was on the point of saying that it would _not_ have happened but for certain circ.u.mstances which it was unnecessary for him to specify.

He realized, however, that he was glad it had happened, glad the long pacing, pacing, pacing was at an end, glad the load of his self-reproach was lifted off. So he said something quite different.

"Well, Biddell, he's _free_! And maybe, when all's said, that was just what he was after!"

Then he turned and strode hurriedly away, more content in his heart than he had felt for days.




To Jim Horner it seemed as if the great, white-headed eagle was in some way the uttered word of the mountain and the lake--of the lofty, solitary, granite-crested peak, and of the deep, solitary water at its base. As his canoe raced down the last mad rapid, and seemed to s.n.a.t.c.h breath again as it floated out upon the still water of the lake, Jim would rest his paddle across the gunwales and look upward expectantly.

First his keen, far-sighted, gray eyes would sweep the blue arc of sky, in search of the slow circling of wide, motionless wings. Then, if the blue was empty of this far shape, his glance would range at once to a dead pine standing sole on a naked and splintered shoulder of the mountain which he knew as "Old Baldy." There he was almost sure to see the great bird sitting, motionless and majestic, staring at the sun. Floating idly and smoking, resting after his long battle with the rapids, he would watch, till the immensity and the solitude would creep in upon his spirit and oppress him. Then, at last, a shrill yelp, far off and faint, but sinister, would come from the pine-top; and the eagle, launching himself on open wings from his perch, would either wheel upward into the blue, or flap away over the serried fir-tops to some ravine in the cliffs that hid his nest.

One day, when Jim came down the river and stopped, as usual, to look for the great bird, he scanned in vain both sky and cliff-side. At last he gave up the search and paddled on down the lake with a sense of loss. Something had vanished from the splendor of the solitude. But presently he heard, close overhead, the beat and whistle of vast wings, and looking up, he saw the eagle pa.s.sing above him, flying so low that he could catch the hard, unwinking, tameless stare of its black and golden eyes as they looked down upon him with a sort of inscrutable challenge. He noted also a peculiarity which he had never seen in any other eagle. This one had a streak of almost black feathers immediately over its left eye, giving it a heavy and sinister eyebrow. The bird carried in the clutch of its talons a big, glistening lake trout, probably s.n.a.t.c.hed from the fish-hawk; and Jim was able to take note of the very set of its pinion-feathers as the wind hummed in their tense webs. Flying with a ma.s.sive power quite unlike the ease of his soaring, the eagle mounted gradually up the steep, pa.s.sed the rocky shoulder with its watch-tower pine, and disappeared over the edge of a ledge which looked to Horner like a mere scratch across the face of the mountain.

"There's where his nest is, sure!" muttered Horner to himself. And remembering that cold challenge in the bird's yellow stare, he suddenly decided that he wanted to see an eagle's nest. He had plenty of time. He was in no particular hurry to get back to the settlement and the gossip of the cross-roads store. He turned his canoe to land, lifted her out and hid her in the bushes, and struck back straight for the face of "Old Baldy."

The lower slope was difficult to climb, a tangle of tumbled boulders and fallen trunks, mantled in the soundless gloom of the fir-forest.

Skilled woodsman though he was, Horner's progress was so slow, and the windless heat became so oppressive to his impatience, that he was beginning to think of giving up the idle venture, when suddenly he came face to face with a perpendicular and impa.s.sable wall of cliff.

This curt arrest to his progress was just what was needed to stiffen his wavering resolution. He understood the defiance which his ready fancy had found in the stare of the eagle. Well, he had accepted the challenge. He would not be baffled by a rock. If he could not climb over it, he would go round it; but he would find the nest.

With an obstinate look in his eyes, Horner began to work his way along the foot of the cliff towards the right. Taking advantage of every inch of ascent that he could gain, he at last found, to his satisfaction, that he had made sufficient height to clear the gloom of the woods. As he looked out over their tops, a light breeze cooled his wet forehead, and he pressed on with fresh vigor. Presently the slope grew a trifle easier, the foothold surer, and he mounted more rapidly.

The steely lake, and the rough-ridged, black-green sea of the fir-tops began to unroll below him. At last he rounded an elbow of the steep, and there before him, upthrust perhaps a hundred feet above his head, stood the outlying shoulder of rock, crowned with its dead pine, on which he was accustomed to see the eagle sitting. Even as he looked, motionless, there came a rushing of great wings; and suddenly there was the eagle himself, erect on his high perch, and staring, as it seemed to Horner, straight into the sun.

When Horner resumed his climbing, the great bird turned his head and gazed down upon him with an ironic fixity which betrayed neither dread nor wonder. Concluding that the nest would be lying somewhere within view of its owner's watch-tower, Horner now turned his efforts towards reaching the dead pine. With infinite difficulty, and with a few bruises to arm and leg, he managed to cross the jagged crevice which partly separated the jutting rock-pier from the main face of the cliff. Then, laboriously and doggedly, he dragged himself up the splintered slope, still being forced around to the right, till there fell away below him a gulf into which it was not good for the nervous to look. Feeling that a fate very different from that of Lot's wife might be his if he should let himself look back too indiscreetly, he kept his eyes upon the lofty goal and pressed on upwards with a haste that now grew a trifle feverish. It began to seem to him that the irony of the eagle's changeless stare might perhaps not be unjustified.

Not till Horner had conquered the steep and, panting but elated, gained the very foot of the pine, did the eagle stir. Then, spreading his wings with a slow disdain, as if not dread but aversion to this unbidden visitor bade him go, he launched himself on a long, splendid sweep over the gulf, and then mounted on a s.p.a.cious spiral to his inaccessible outlook in the blue. Leaning against the bleached and scarred trunk of the pine, Horner watched this majestic departure for some minutes, recovering his breath and drinking deep the cool and vibrant air. Then he turned and scanned the face of the mountain.

[Ill.u.s.tration: "He launched himself on a long, splendid sweep over the gulf."]

There it lay, in full view--the nest which he had climbed so far to find. It was not more than a hundred yards away. Yet, at first sight, it seemed hopelessly out of reach. The chasm separating the ledge on which it clung from the outlying rock of the pine was not more than twenty feet across; but its bottom was apparently somewhere in the roots of the mountain. There was no way of pa.s.sing it at this point.

But Horner had a faith that there was a way to be found over or around every obstacle in the world, if only one kept on looking for it resolutely enough. To keep on looking for a path to the eagle's nest, he struggled forward, around the outer slope of the b.u.t.tress, down a ragged incline, and across a narrow and dizzy "saddle-back," which brought him presently upon another angle of the steep, facing southeast. Clinging with his toes and one hand, while he wiped his dripping forehead with his sleeve, he looked up--and saw the whole height of the mountain, unbroken and daunting, stretched skyward above him.

But to Horner the solemn sight was not daunting in the least.

"Gee!" he exclaimed, grinning with satisfaction. "I _hev_ circ.u.mvented that there cervice, sure's death!"

Of the world below he had now a view that was almost overpoweringly unrestricted; but of the mountain, and his scene of operations, he could see only the stretch directly above him. A little calculation convinced him, however, that all he had to do was to keep straight on up for perhaps a hundred and fifty feet, then, as soon as the slope would permit, work around to his left, and descend upon the nest from above. Incidentally, he made up his mind that his return journey should be made by another face of the mountain--any other, rather than that by which he had rashly elected to come.

It seemed to Horner like a mile, that last hundred and fifty feet; but at last he calculated that he had gained enough in height. At the same time he felt the slope grow easier. Making his way towards the left, he came upon a narrow ledge, along which he could move easily side-wise, by clinging to the rock. Presently it widened to a path by which he could walk almost at ease, with the wide, wild solitude, dark green laced with silver watercourses, spread like a stupendous amphitheatre far below him. It was the wilderness which he knew so well in detail, yet had never before seen as a whole; and the sight, for a few moments, held him in a kind of awed surprise. When, at last, he tore his gaze free from the majestic spectacle, there, some ten or twelve yards below his feet, he saw the object of his quest.

It was nothing much to boast of in the way of architecture, this nest of the Kings of the Air--a mere cart-load of sticks and bark and coa.r.s.e gra.s.s, apparently tumbled at haphazard upon the narrow ledge.

But in fact its foundations were so skilfully wedged into the crevices of the rock, its structure was so cunningly interwoven, that the fiercest winds which scourged that lofty seat were powerless against it. It was a secure throne, no matter what tempests might rage around it.

Sitting half erect on the nest were two eaglets, almost full grown, and so nearly full feathered that Horner wondered why they did not take wing at his approach. He did not know that the period of helplessness with these younglings of royal birth lasted even after they looked as big and well able to take care of themselves as their parents. It was a surprise to him, also, to see that they were quite unlike their parents in color, being black all over from head to tail, instead of a rich brown with snow-white head, neck, and tail. As he stared, he slowly realized that the mystery of the rare "black eagle"

was explained. He had seen one once, flying heavily just above the tree-tops, and imagined it a discovery of his own. But now he reached the just conclusion that it had been merely a youngster in its first plumage.

As he stared, the two young birds returned his gaze with interest, watching him with steady, yellow, undaunted eyes from under their flat, fierce brows; with high-shouldered wings half raised, they appeared quite ready to resent any familiarity which the strange intruder might be contemplating.

Horner lay face downward on his ledge, and studied the perpendicular rock below him for a way to reach the next. He had no very definite idea what he wanted to do when he got there; possibly, if the undertaking seemed feasible, he might carry off one of the royal brood and amuse himself with trying to domesticate it. But, at any rate, he hoped to add something, by a closer inspection, to his rather inadequate knowledge of eagles.

And this hope, indeed, as he learned the next moment, was not unjustified. Cautiously he was lowering himself over the edge, feeling for the scanty and elusive foothold, when all at once the air was filled with a rush of mighty wings, which seemed about to overwhelm him. A rigid wing-tip buffeted him so sharply that he lost his hold on the ledge. With a yell of consternation, which caused his a.s.sailant to veer off, startled, he fell backwards, and plunged down straight upon the nest.

It was the nest only that saved him from instant death. Tough and elastic, it broke his fall; but at the same time its elasticity threw him off, and on the rebound he went rolling and b.u.mping on down the steep slopes below the ledge, with the screaming of the eagles in his ears, and a sickening sense in his heart that the sunlit world tumbling and turning somersaults before his blurred sight was his last view of life. Then, to his dim surprise, he was brought up with a thump; and clutching desperately at a bush which sc.r.a.ped his face, he lay still. At the same moment a flapping ma.s.s of feathers and fierce claws landed on top of him, but only to scramble off again as swiftly as possible with a hoa.r.s.e squawk. He had struck one of the young eagles in his fall, hurled it from the nest, and brought it down with him to this lower ledge which had given him so timely a refuge.

For several minutes, perhaps, he lay clutching the bush desperately and staring straight upwards. There he saw both parent eagles whirling excitedly, screaming, and staring down at him; and then the edge of the nest, somewhat dilapidated by his strange a.s.sault, overhanging the ledge about thirty feet above. At length his wits came back to him, and he cautiously turned his head to see if he was in danger of falling if he should relax his hold on the bush. He was in bewildering pain, which seemed distributed all over him; but in spite of it he laughed aloud, to find that the bush, to which he hung so desperately, was in a little hollow on a s.p.a.cious platform, from which he could not have fallen by any chance. At that strange, uncomprehended sound of human laughter the eagles ceased their screaming for a few moments and wheeled farther aloof.

With great difficulty and anguish Horner raised himself to a sitting position and tried to find out how seriously he was hurt. One leg was quite helpless. He felt it all over, and came to the conclusion that it was not actually broken; but for all the uses of a leg, for the present at least, it might as well have been putty, except for the fact that it pained him abominably. His left arm and shoulder, too, seemed to be little more than useless enc.u.mbrances, and he wondered how so many bruises and sprains could find place on one human body of no more than average size. However, having a.s.sured himself, with infinite relief, that there were no bones broken, he set his teeth grimly and looked about to take account of the situation.


The ledge on which he had found refuge was apparently an isolated one, about fifty or sixty feet in length, and vanishing into the face of the sheer cliff at either end. It had a width of perhaps twenty-five feet; and its surface, fairly level, held some soil in its rocky hollows. Two or three dark-green seedling firs, a slim young silver birch, a patch or two of wind-beaten gra.s.s, and some clumps of harebells, azure as the clear sky overhead, softened the bareness of this tiny, high-flung terrace. In one spot, at the back, a spread of intense green and a handbreadth of moisture on the rock showed where a tiny spring oozed from a crevice to keep this lonely oasis in the granite alive and fresh.

At the farthest edge of the shelf, and eying him with savage dread, sat the young eagle which had fallen with him. Horner noticed, with a kind of sympathy, that even the bird, for all his wings, had not come out of the affair without some damage; for one of its black wings was not held up so snugly as the other. He hoped it was not broken. As he mused vaguely upon this unimportant question, his pain so exhausted him that he sank back and lay once more staring up at the eagles, who were still wheeling excitedly over the nest. In an exhaustion that was partly sleep and partly coma, his eyes closed. When he opened them again, the sun was hours lower and far advanced towards the west, so that the ledge was in shadow. His head was now perfectly clear; and his first thought was of getting himself back to the canoe. With excruciating effort he dragged himself to the edge of the terrace and looked down. The descent, at this point, was all but perpendicular for perhaps a hundred feet. In full possession of his powers, he would find it difficult enough. In his present state he saw clearly that he might just as well throw himself over as attempt it.

Not yet disheartened, however, he dragged himself slowly towards the other end of the terrace, where the young eagle sat watching him. As he approached, the bird lifted his wings, as if about to launch himself over and dare the element which he had not yet learned to master. But one wing drooped as if injured, and he knew the attempt would be fatal. Opening his beak angrily, he hopped away to the other end of the terrace. But Horner was paying no heed to birds at that moment. He was staring down the steep, and realizing that this ledge which had proved his refuge was now his prison, and not unlikely to become also his tomb.

Sinking back against a rock, and grinding his teeth with pain, he strove to concentrate his attention upon the problem that confronted him. Was he to die of thirst and hunger on this high solitude before he could recover sufficiently to climb down? The thought stirred all his dogged determination. He _would_ keep alive, and that was all there was about it. He _would_ get well, and then the climbing down would be no great matter. This point settled, he dismissed it from his consideration and turned his thoughts to ways and means. After all, there was that little thread of a spring trickling from the rock! He would have enough to drink. And as for food--how much worse it would have been had the ledge been a bare piece of rock! Here he had some gra.s.s, and the roots of the herbs and bushes. A man could keep himself alive on such things if he had will enough. And, as a last resource, there was the young eagle! This idea, however, was anything but attractive to him; and it was with eyes of good-will rather than of appet.i.te that he glanced at his fellow-prisoner sitting motionless at the other extremity of the ledge.

"It'ld be hard lines, pardner, ef I should hev to eat you, after all!"

he muttered, with a twisted kind of grin. "We're both of us in a hole, sure enough, an' I'll play fair as long as I kin!"

As he mused, a great shadow pa.s.sed over his head, and looking up, he saw one of the eagles hovering low above the ledge. It was the male, his old acquaintance, staring down at him from under that strange, black brow. He carried a large fish in his talons, and was plainly anxious to feed his captive young, but not quite ready to approach this mysterious man-creature who had been able to invade his eyrie as if with wings. Horner lay as still as a stone, watching through half-closed lids. The young eagle, seeing food so near, opened its beak wide and croaked eagerly; while the mother bird, larger but wilder and less resolute than her mate, circled aloof with sharp cries of warning. At last, unable any longer to resist the appeals of his hungry youngster, the great bird swooped down over him, dropped the fish fairly into his clutches, and slanted away with a hurried flapping which betrayed his nervousness.

As the youngster fell ravenously upon his meal, tearing it and gulping the fragments, Horner drew a deep breath.

"There's where I come in, pardner," he explained. "When I kin git up an appet.i.te for that sort of vittles, I'll go shares with you, ef y'ain't got no objection!"