Chapter 14: The Mucker Sees a New Light
Copyright© 2015 by Edgar Rice Burroughs
TOGETHER the girl and the mucker approached the entrance to the amphitheater. From behind a shoulder of rock they peered down into the forest below them. For several minutes neither saw any cause for alarm.
"I guess youse must o' been seein' things," said Byrne, drily.
"Yes," said the girl, "and I see them again. Look! Quick! Down there--to the right."
Byrne looked in the direction she indicated.
"Chinks," he commented. "Gee! Look at 'em comin'. Dere must be a hundred of 'em."
He turned a rueful glance back into the amphitheater.
"I dunno as dis place looks as good to me as it did," he remarked. "Dose yaps wid de toad stabbers could hike up on top o' dese cliffs an' make it a case o' 'thence by carriages to Calvary' for ours in about two shakes."
"Yes," said the girl, "I'm afraid it's a regular cul-de-sac."
"I dunno nothin' about dat," replied the mucker; "but I do know dat if we wants to get out o' here we gotta get a hump on ourselves good an' lively. Come ahead," and with his words he ran quickly through the entrance, and turning squarely toward the right skirted the perpendicular cliffs that extended as far as they could see to be lost to view in the forest that ran up to meet them from below.
The trees and underbrush hid them from the head-hunters. There had been danger of detection but for the brief instant that they passed through the entrance of the hollow, but at the time they had chosen the enemy had been hidden in a clump of thick brush far down the slope.
For hours the two fugitives continued their flight, passing over the crest of a ridge and downward toward another valley, until by a small brook they paused to rest, hopeful that they had entirely eluded their pursuers.
Again Byrne fished, and again they sat together at a one-course meal. As they ate the man found himself looking at the girl more and more often. For several days the wonder of her beauty had been growing upon him, until now he found it difficult to take his eyes from her. Thrice she surprised him in the act of staring intently at her, and each time he had dropped his eyes guiltily. At length the girl became nervous, and then terribly frightened--was it coming so soon?
The man had talked but little during this meal, and for the life of her Barbara Harding could not think of any topic with which to distract his attention from his thoughts.
"Hadn't we better be moving on?" she asked at last.
Byrne gave a little start as though surprised in some questionable act.
"I suppose so," he said; "this ain't no place to spend the night--it's too open. We gotta find a sort o' hiding place if we can, dat a fellow kin barricade wit something."
Again they took up their seemingly hopeless march--an aimless wandering in search of they knew not what. Away from one danger to possible dangers many fold more terrible. Barbara's heart was very heavy, for again she feared and mistrusted the mucker.
They followed down the little brook now to where it emptied into a river and then down the valley beside the river which grew wider and more turbulent with every mile. Well past mid-afternoon they came opposite a small, rocky island, and as Byrne's eyes fell upon it an exclamation of gratification burst from his lips.
"Jest de place!" he cried. "We orter be able to hide dere forever."
"But how are we to get there?" asked the girl, looking fearfully at the turbulent river.
"It ain't deep," Byrne assured her. "Come ahead; I'll carry yeh acrost," and without waiting for a reply he gathered her in his arms and started down the bank.
What with the thoughts that had occupied his mind off and on during the afternoon the sudden and close contact of the girl's warm young body close to his took Billy Byrne's breath away, and sent the hot blood coursing through his veins. It was with the utmost difficulty that he restrained a mad desire to crush her to him and cover her face with kisses.
And then the fatal thought came to him--why should he restrain himself? What was this girl to him? Had he not always hated her and her kind? Did she not look with loathing and contempt upon him? And to whom did her life belong anyway but to him--had he not saved it twice? What difference would it make? They'd never come out of this savage world alive, and if he didn't take her some monkey-faced Chink would get her.
They were in the middle of the stream now. Byrne's arms already had commenced to tighten upon the girl. With a sudden tug he strove to pull her face down to his; but she put both hands upon his shoulders and held his lips at arms' length. And her wide eyes looked full into the glowing gray ones of the mucker. And each saw in the other's something that held their looks for a full minute.
Barbara saw what she had feared, but she saw too something else that gave her a quick, pulsing hope--a look of honest love, or could she be mistaken? And the mucker saw the true eyes of the woman he loved without knowing that he loved her, and he saw the plea for pity and protection in them.
"Don't," whispered the girl. "Please don't, you frighten me."
A week ago Billy Byrne would have laughed at such a plea. Doubtless, too, he would have struck the girl in the face for her resistance. He did neither now, which spoke volumes for the change that was taking place within him, but neither did he relax his hold upon her, or take his burning eyes from her frightened ones.
Thus he strode through the turbulent, shallow river to clamber up the bank onto the island. In his soul the battle still raged, but he had by no means relinquished his intention to have his way with the girl. Fear, numb, freezing fear, was in the girl's eyes now. The mucker read it there as plain as print, and had she not said that she was frightened? That was what he had wanted to accomplish back there upon the Halfmoon--to frighten her. He would have enjoyed the sight, but he had not been able to accomplish the thing. Now she not only showed that she was frightened--she had admitted it, and it gave the mucker no pleasure--on the contrary it made him unaccountably uncomfortable.
And then came the last straw--tears welled to those lovely eyes. A choking sob wracked the girl's frame--"And just when I was learning to trust you so!" she cried.
They had reached the top of the bank, now, and the man, still holding her in his arms, stood upon a mat of jungle grass beneath a great tree. Slowly he lowered her to her feet. The madness of desire still gripped him; but now there was another force at work combating the evil that had predominated before.
Theriere's words came back to him: "Good-bye, Byrne; take good care of Miss Harding," and his admission to the Frenchman during that last conversation with the dying man: "--a week ago I guess I was a coward. Dere seems to be more'n one kind o' nerve--I'm just a-learnin' of the right kind, I guess."
He had been standing with eyes upon the ground, his heavy hand still gripping the girl's arm. He looked into her face again. She was waiting there, her great eyes upon his filled with fear and questioning, like a prisoner before the bar awaiting the sentence of her judge.
As the man looked at Barbara Harding standing there before him he saw her in a strange new light, and a sudden realization of the truth flashed upon him. He saw that he could not harm her now, or ever, for he loved her!
And with the awakening there came to Billy Byrne the withering, numbing knowledge that his love must forever be a hopeless one--that this girl of the aristocracy could never be for such as he.
Barbara Harding, still looking questioningly at him, saw the change that came across his countenance--she saw the swift pain that shot to the man's eyes, and she wondered. His fingers released their grasp upon her arm. His hands fell limply to his sides.
"Don't be afraid," he said. "Please don't be afraid o' me. I couldn't hurt youse if I tried."
A deep sigh of relief broke from the girl's lips--relief and joy; and she realized that its cause was as much that the man had proved true to the new estimate she had recently placed upon him as that the danger to herself had passed.
"Come," said Billy Byrne, "we'd better move in a bit out o' sight o' de mainland, an' look fer a place to make camp. I reckon we'd orter rest here for a few days till we git in shape ag'in. I know youse must be dead beat, an' I sure am, all right, all right."
Together they sought a favorable site for their new home, and it was as though the horrid specter of a few moments before had never risen to menace them, for the girl felt that a great burden of apprehension had been lifted forever from her shoulders, and though a dull ache gnawed at the mucker's heart, still he was happier than he had ever been before--happy to be near the woman he loved.
With the long sword of Oda Yorimoto, Billy Byrne cut saplings and bamboo and the fronds of fan palms, and with long tough grasses bound them together into the semblance of a rude hut. Barbara gathered leaves and grasses with which she covered the floor.
"Number One, Riverside Drive," said the mucker, with a grin, when the work was completed; "an' now I'll go down on de river front an' build de Bowery."
"Oh, are you from New York?" asked the girl.
"Not on yer life," replied Billy Byrne. "I'm from good ol' Chi; but I been to Noo York twict wit de Goose Island Kid, an' so I knows all about it. De roughnecks belongs on de Bowery, so dat's wot we'll call my dump down by de river. You're a highbrow, so youse gotta live on Riverside Drive, see?" and the mucker laughed at his little pleasantry.
But the girl did not laugh with him. Instead she looked troubled.
"Wouldn't you rather be a 'highbrow' too?" she asked, "and live up on Riverside Drive, right across the street from me?"
"I don't belong," said the mucker gruffly.
"Wouldn't you rather belong?" insisted the girl.
All his life Billy had looked with contempt upon the hated, pusillanimous highbrows, and now to be asked if he would not rather be one! It was unthinkable, and yet, strange to relate, he realized an odd longing to be like Theriere, and Billy Mallory; yes, in some respects like Divine, even. He wanted to be more like the men that the woman he loved knew best.
"It's too late fer me ever to belong, now," he said ruefully. "Yeh gotta be borned to it. Gee! Wouldn't I look funny in wite pants, an' one o' dem dinky, little 'Willie-off-de-yacht' lids?"
Even Barbara had to laugh at the picture the man's words raised to her imagination.