He gave no thought to Jean Croisset, bound hand and foot in the little cabin on the mountain. Even as he had clung to the window for that last moment it had occurred to him that it would be folly to return to the Frenchman. Meleese had promised to come to him, and he believed her, and for that reason Jean was no longer of use to him. Alone he would lose himself in that wilderness, alone work his way into the South, trusting to his revolver for food, and to his compass and the matches in his pocket for life. There would be no sledge-trail for his enemies to follow, no treachery to fear. It would take a thousand men to find him after the night’s storm had covered up his retreat, and if one should find him they two would be alone to fight it out.
For a moment he stopped to listen and stare futilely into the blackness behind him. When he turned to go on his heart stood still. A shadow had loomed out of the night half a dozen paces ahead of him, and before he could raise his revolver the shadow was lightened by a sharp flash of fire. Howland staggered back, his fingers loosening their grip on his pistol, and as he crumpled down into the snow he heard over him the hoarse voice that had urged on the dog. After that there was a space of silence, of black chaos in which he neither reasoned nor lived, and when there came to him faintly the sound of other voices. Finally all of them were lost in one—a moaning, sobbing voice that was calling his name again and again, a voice that seemed to reach to him from out of an infinity of distance, and that he knew was the voice of Meleese. He strove to speak, to lift his arms, but his tongue was as lead, his arms as though fettered with steel bands.
The voice died away. He lived through a cycle of speechless, painless night into which finally a gleam of dawn returned. He felt as if years were passing in his efforts to move, to lift himself out of chaos. But at last he won. His eyes opened, he raised himself. His first sensation was that he was no longer in the snow and that the storm was not beating into his face. Instead there encompassed him a damp dungeon-like chill. Everywhere there was blackness—everywhere except in one spot, where a little yellow eye of fire watched him and blinked at him. At first he thought that the eye must be miles and miles away. But it came quickly nearer—and still nearer—until at last he knew that it was a candle burning with the silence of a death taper a yard or two beyond his feet.
It was the candle-light that dragged Howland quickly back into consciousness and pain. He knew that he was no longer in the snow. His fingers dug into damp earth as he made an effort to raise himself, and with that effort it seemed as though a red-hot knife had cleft him from the top of his skull to his chest. The agony of that instant’s pain drew a sharp cry from him and he clutched both hands to his head, waiting and fearing. It did not come again and he sat up. A hundred candles danced and blinked before him like so many taunting eyes and turned him dizzy with a sickening nausea. One by one the lights faded away after that until there was left only the steady glow of the real candle.