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´╗┐Title: Prescott of Saskatchewan
Author: Bindloss, Harold, 1866-1945
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Prescott of Saskatchewan" ***

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PRESCOTT OF SASKATCHEWAN

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[Illustration: "IT SEEMED PRUDENT TO PLACE AS LONG A DISTANCE AS POSSIBLE
BETWEEN THEM AND THE SETTLEMENT"--Page 158]

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PRESCOTT OF SASKATCHEWAN

BY
HAROLD BINDLOSS

AUTHOR OF
THE LONG PORTAGE,
RANCHING FOR SYLVIA,
WINSTON OF THE PRAIRIE, ETC.

WITH A FRONTISPIECE IN COLOR BY
W. HERBERT DUNTON

GROSSET & DUNLAP
PUBLISHERS :: NEW YORK


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ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION
INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT, 1913, BY FREDERICK A. STOKES COMPANY

PUBLISHED IN ENGLAND UNDER THE TITLE, "THE WASTREL"

August, 1913

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CONTENTS

CHAPTER                                PAGE
     I.  JERNYNGHAM'S HAPPY THOUGHT       1
    II.  MURIEL SEES THE WEST            12
   III.  JERNYNGHAM MAKES A DECISION     23
    IV.  MURIEL FEELS REGRET             35
     V.  THE MYSTERY OF THE MUSKEG       45
    VI.  A DEAL IN LAND                  57
   VII.  THE SEARCH                      67
  VIII.  A DAY ON THE PRAIRIE            79
    IX.  PRESCOTT MAKES A PROMISE        92
     X.  A NEW CLUE                     102
    XI.  A REVELATION                   113
   XII.  PRESCOTT'S FLIGHT              123
  XIII.  THE CONSTRUCTION CAMP          131
   XIV.  ON THE TRAIL                   141
    XV.  MISS FOSTER'S ESCORT           153
   XVI.  THE MISSIONARY'S ALLY          168
  XVII.  THE PASSAGE OF THE MOUNTAINS   183
 XVIII.  DEFEAT                         195
   XIX.  PRESCOTT'S RETURN              206
    XX.  MURIEL RELIEVES HER MIND       216
   XXI.  WANDLE TAKES PRECAUTIONS       227
  XXII.  JERNYNGHAM MAKES A DISCOVERY   237
 XXIII.  A NIGHT RIDE                   249
  XXIV.  MURIEL PROVES OBDURATE         261
   XXV.  A WOMAN'S INFLUENCE            272
  XXVI.  PRESCOTT MAKES INQUIRIES       284
 XXVII.  STARTLING NEWS                 296
XXVIII.  THE END OF THE PURSUIT         306
  XXIX.  JERNYNGHAM BREAKS DOWN         318
   XXX.  PRESCOTT'S VINDICATION         332

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PRESCOTT, OF SASKATCHEWAN

CHAPTER I

JERNYNGHAM'S HAPPY THOUGHT


The air was cooling down toward evening at Sebastian, where an
unpicturesque collection of wooden houses stand upon a branch line on the
Canadian prairie. The place is not attractive during the earlier portion
of the short northern summer, when for the greater part of every week it
lies sweltering in heat, in spite of the strong west winds that drive
dust-clouds through its rutted streets. As a rule, during the remaining
day or two the temperature sharply falls, thunder crashes between
downpours of heavy rain, and the wet plank sidewalks provide a
badly-needed refuge from the cement-like "gumbo" mire.

The day, however, had been cloudless and unusually hot. Prescott had
driven in from his wheat farm at some distance from the settlement, and
he now walked toward the hotel. He was twenty-eight years old, of average
height and rather spare figure; his face, which had been deeply bronzed
by frost and sun, was what is called open, his gray eyes were clear and
steady, the set of his lips and mould of chin firm. He looked honest and
good-natured, but one who could, when necessary, sturdily hold his own.
His attire was simple: a wide gray hat, a saffron-colored shirt with
flannel collar, and a light tweed suit, something the worse for wear.

As he passed along the sidewalk he looked about. The small, frame houses
were destitute of paint and any pretense of beauty, a number of them had
raised, square fronts which hid the shingled roofs; but beyond the end of
the street there was the prairie stretching back to the horizon. In the
foreground it was a sweep of fading green and pale ocher; farther off it
was tinged with gray and purple; and where it cut the glow of green and
pink on the skyline a long birch bluff ran in a cold blue smear. To the
left of the opening rose three grain elevators: huge wooden towers with
their tops narrowed in and devices of stars and flour-bags painted on
them. At their feet ran the railroad track, encumbered with a string of
freight-cars; a tall water-tank, a grimy stage for unloading coal, and a
small office shack marked the station.

Prescott, however, did not notice much of this; he was more interested in
the signs of conflict on the persons of the men he met. Some looked as if
they had been violently rolled in the dust; others wore torn jackets; and
the faces of several were disfigured by bruises. Empty bottles, which
make handy clubs, were suggestively scattered about the road. All this
was unusual, but Prescott supposed some allowance must be made for the
fact that it was the anniversary of the famous victory of the Boyne.
Moreover, there was a community of foreign immigrants, mixed with some
Irishmen and French Canadians, but all professing the Romish faith,
engaged in some railroad work not far away.

In front of the hotel ran a veranda supported on wooden pillars, and a
row of chairs was set out on the match-strewn sidewalk beneath it. Most
of them were occupied by after-supper loungers, and several of the men
bore scars. Prescott stopped and lighted his pipe.

"Things seem to have been pretty lively here," he remarked. "I came in to
see the implement man and found he couldn't talk straight, with half his
teeth knocked out. It's lucky the Northwest troopers have stopped your
carrying pistols."

One of the men laughed.

"We've had a great day, sure. Quite a few of the Dagos had knives, and
Jernyngham had a sword. Guess he'd be in trouble now, only it wasn't one
you could cut with."

"How did he get the sword?"

"It was King Billy's," explained another man. "Fellow who was acting him
got knocked out with a bottle in his eye. Jernyngham got up on the horse
instead and led the last charge, when we whipped them across the track."

"Where's the Protestant Old Guard now?"

"Some of it's in Clayton's surgery; rest's gone home. When it looked as
if the stores would be wrecked, Reeve Marvin butted in. Telephoned the
railroad boss to send up gravel cars for his boys; told the other crowd
he'd bring the troopers in if they didn't quit. Ordered all strangers off
on the West-bound, and now we're simmering down."

"Where's Jernyngham?"

The man jerked his hand toward the hotel.

"In his room, a bit the worse for wear. Mrs. Jernyngham's nursing him."

Pushing open the wire-mesh mosquito door, Prescott entered the building.
Its interior was shadowy and filled with cigar smoke; flies buzzed
everywhere, and the smell of warm resinous boards pervaded the rank
atmosphere. The place was destitute of floor covering or drapery, and the
passage Prescott walked down was sloppy with soap and water from a row of
wash-basins, near which hung one small wet towel. Ascending the stairs,
he entered a little and very scantily furnished room with walls of
uncovered pine. It contained a bed with a ragged quilt and a couple of
plain wooden chairs, in one of which a man leaned back. He was about
thirty years old and he roughly resembled Prescott, only that his face,
which was a rather handsome one, bore the stamp of indulgence. His
forehead was covered by a dirty bandage, there was dust on his clothes,
and Prescott thought he was not quite sober. In the other chair sat a
young woman with fine dark eyes and glossy black hair, whose appearance
would have been prepossessing had it not been spoiled by her
slatternliness and cheap finery. She smiled at the visitor as he walked
in.

"If you'd come sooner, we might have kep' him out o' trouble," she said.
"He got away from me when things begun to hum."

Her slight accent suggested the French Canadian strain, though Prescott
imagined that there was a trace of Indian blood in her. Her manners were
unfinished, her character was primitive, but Prescott thought she was as
good a consort as Jernyngham deserved. The latter had a small wheat farm
lying back on the prairie, but his erratic temperament prevented his
successfully working it. Prescott was not a censorious person, and he had
a liking and some pity for the man.

"Well," he said, in answer to the woman's remark, "that was certainly
foolish of him. But what had he to do with the row, anyway?"

"Have a drink, and I'll try to explain," said Jernyngham. "A big cool
drink might clear my head, and I feel it needs it."

"You kin have soda, but nothin' else!" the woman broke in. "I'll send it
up; and now that I kin leave you, I'm goin' to the store." She turned to
Prescott. "Nothin' but soda; and see he don't git out!"

She left them and Jernyngham laughed.

"Ellice's a good sort; I sometimes wonder how she puts up with me.
Anyhow, I'm glad you came, because I'm in what might be called a
dilemma."

As this was not a novelty to his companion, Prescott made no comment, and
by and by two tumblers containing iced liquid were brought in. Jernyngham
drained his thirstily and looked up with a grin.

"It isn't exhilarating, but it's cool," he said. "Now, however, you're
curious about my honorable scars--I got them from a bottle. It broke, you
see, but there's some satisfaction in remembering that I knocked out the
other fellow with the flat of the Immortal William's sword."

"You'll get worse hurt some day," Prescott rebuked him severely.

"It's possible, but you're wandering from the point. I'm trying to
remember what led me into the fray in the incongruous company of certain
Hardshell Baptists, Ontario Methodists, and Belfast Presbyterians. As a
young man, my sympathies were with the advanced Anglicans, perhaps
because my people were sternly Evangelical. Then the whole thing's
unreasonable--what have I to do, for instance, with the Protestant
succession?"

"It isn't very plain," said Prescott. "Still, everybody knows what kind
of fool you are."

"I live," declared Jernyngham. "You steady, industrious fellows grow. The
row began at the ball-game--disputed base, I think--and our lot had got
badly whipped at the first round when I stood on the veranda and sang
them, 'No Surrender.' That was enough for the Ulster boys, and three or
four of them go a long way in this kind of scrimmage."

Prescott had no sympathy with Jernyngham's vagaries, but one could not be
angry with him: the man was irresponsible. In a few moments, however,
Jernyngham's face grew graver.

"Jack," he resumed, "I'm in a hole. Never troubled to ask for my letters
until late in the afternoon, and now I don't know what to do unless you
can help me."

"You had better tell me what the trouble is."

"To make you understand, I'll have to go back some time. Everybody round
this place knows what I am now, but I believe I was rather a promising
youngster before I left the old country, a bit of a rebel though, and
inclined to kick against the ultra-conventional. In fact, I think honesty
was my ruin, Jack; I kicked openly."

"Is there any other way? I can't see that there's much use in kicking
unless the opposition feels it."

"Don't interrupt," scowled Jernyngham. "This is rather deep for you, but
I'll try to explain. If you want to get on in the old country, you must
conform to the standard; though you can do what you like at times and
places where people of your proper circle aren't supposed to see you. I
didn't recognize the benefits of the system then--and I suffered for it."

He paused with a curious, half-tender look in his face.

"There was a girl, Jack, good as they're made, I still believe, though
not in our station. Well, I meant to marry her--thought I was strong
enough to defy the system--and she, not knowing what manner of life I was
meant for, was fond of me."

"What manner of life were you meant for?"

Jernyngham laughed harshly.

"The Bar, for a beginning; I'd got my degree. The House later--there was
strong family influence--to assist in propagating the Imperial idea.
Strikes one as amusing, Jack."

Prescott thought his companion would not have spoken so freely had he
been wholly sober, but he had long noticed the purity of the man's
intonation and the refinement that occasionally showed in his manners.

"You're making quite a tale of it," he said.

"Well," resumed Jernyngham, "I didn't know what I was up against; the
system broke me. When the stress came, I hadn't nerve enough to hold out,
and for that I've been punished. My sister--she meant well--got hold of
the girl, persuaded her to give me up--for my sake, Jack. Wouldn't see
me, sent back my letters, and I came to Canada, beaten."

He paused.

"There's a reason why you must try to realize my father and sister. He's
unflinchingly upright, conventional to a degree; Gertrude's a feebler
copy, as just, but perhaps not quite so hard. Well, I've never written to
either, but I've heard from friends and the conclusion seems to be that
as I've never asked for money I must have reformed. There's a desire for
a reconciliation; my father's getting old, and I believe, in their
reserved way, they were fond of me. Don't be impatient; I'm coming to the
point at last. I'd a letter to-day from Colston--though the man's a
relative, I haven't seen him since I left school. He and his wife are
passing through on their way to British Columbia and the idea seems to be
that he should see me and report."

Prescott made a sign of understanding. Jernyngham, stamped with
dissipation and injured in a brawl, and his small homestead where
everything was in disorder and out of repair, were hardly likely to
create a favorable impression on his English relatives. Besides, there
was Mrs. Jernyngham. The effect of her appearance and conversation might
be disastrous.

"Now," continued Jernyngham, "you see how I'm fixed. I haven't much to
thank my people for, but I want to spare them a shock. If it would make
things easier for them, I don't mind their thinking better of me than I
deserve."

His companion pondered this. It was crudely put, but it showed a rather
fine consideration, Prescott thought, for the people who were in part
responsible for the man's downfall; perhaps, too, a certain sense of
shame and contrition. Jernyngham's desire could not be found fault with.

"What are you going to do about it?" he asked.

"Nothing," said Jernyngham with a reckless laugh. "You'll do all that's
needed; I mean to leave my friends to you. Strikes me as a brilliant
idea, though not exactly novel; made a number of excellent comedies. Did
you ever see 'Charley's Aunt'?"

Prescott frowned.

"I don't deal."

"Think! You're not unlike me and we're about the same age; Colston,
hasn't seen me for fourteen years; his wife never!"

"No," objected Prescott. "It can't be done!"

"It's hardly good form to remind you of it, Jack, but there was a time
when we took a grading contract on the line and you got into trouble
close in front of the ballast train."

Prescott's determined expression changed.

"Yes," he conceded; "it gives you a pull on me--I can't go back on that."
He spread out his hands. "Well, if you insist."

"For the old man's sake," said Jernyngham. "I want you to take the
Colstons out to your place and entertain them for a day or two; they
won't stay long. They're coming in by the West-bound this evening."

"Then," exclaimed Prescott, "they'll be here in half an hour, if the
train's on time! If there are any points you can give me about your
family history, you had better be quick!"

"In the first place, I was rather a wild youngster, with an original turn
of mind and was supposed to be a bit of a rake, though that wasn't
correct--my eccentricities were harmless then. Your word 'maverick'
describes me pretty well: I didn't belong to the herd; I wouldn't be
rounded up with the others and let them put the brand on. That's no doubt
why they credited me with vices I didn't possess." Jernyngham laughed.
"Still, you mustn't overdo the thing; you want delicately to convey the
idea that you're now reformed. The part requires some skill; it's a pity
you're not smarter. Jack. But let me think----"

He went into a few details about his family, and then Prescott left him
and, after giving an order to have his team ready, proceeded to the
station. It was getting dark, but the western sky was still a sheet of
wonderful pale green, against which the tall elevators stood out black
and sharp. The head-lamp of a freight locomotive flooded track and
station with a dazzling electric glare, the rails that ran straight and
level across the waste gleaming far back in the silvery radiance. This
helped Prescott to overcome his repugnance to his task, as he remembered
another summer night when he had attempted to hurry his team across the
track before a ballast train came up. Startled by the blaze of the
head-lamp and the scream of the whistle, one of the horses plunged and
kicked; a wheel of the wagon, sinking in the loose ballast, skidded
against a tie; and Prescott stood between the rails, struggling to
extricate the beasts, while the great locomotive rushed down on them.
There was a vein of stubborn tenacity in him and it looked as if he and
the horses would perish together when Jernyngham came running to the
rescue. How they escaped neither of them could afterward remember, but a
moment later they stood beside the track while the train went banging by,
covering them with dust and fragments of gravel. Prescott admitted that
he owed Jernyngham something for that.

Nevertheless there was no doubt that the part he had undertaken to play
would be difficult. He could see its humorous side, but he had not been a
prodigal; indeed he was by temperament and habit steady-going and
industrious. The son of a small business man in Montreal, he had after an
excellent education abandoned city life and gone west, where he had
prospered by frugality and hard work. He was by no means rich, but he was
content and inclined to be optimistic about the future.

When he reached the station, he found that the usual crowd of loungers
had gathered to watch the train come in. Lighting his pipe, he walked up
and down the low platform, wondering uneasily how he would get through
the next few days. Jernyngham, he felt, had placed him in a singularly
embarrassing position.



CHAPTER II

MURIEL SEES THE WEST


The sunlight was fading off the prairie when a party of three sat in a
first-class car as the local train went jolting westward. Henry Colston
leaned back in his seat with a Winnipeg paper on his knee; and his
appearance stamped him as a well-bred Englishman traveling for pleasure.
He was thirty-four; his dress, though dusty, was fastidiously neat; his
expression was pleasant, but there was an air of formality about him. One
would not have expected him to do anything startling or extravagant, even
under stress of emotion. Mrs. Colston resembled him in this respect. She
was a handsome woman, a little reserved in manner, and was tastefully
dressed in traveling tweed, which she had found too hot for the Canadian
summer. Muriel, her sister, was twenty-four, and though the two were
alike, the girl's face was fresher, more ingenuous and perhaps more
intelligent. It was an attractive face, crowned with red-gold hair; broad
brows, straight nose and firm mouth hinted at some force of character,
but her eyes of deep violet were unusually merry, and her warm coloring
suggested a sanguine temperament.

So far, Muriel Hurst had taken life lightly and had foiled Mrs. Colston's
attempts to make a suitable match for her. The daughter of a man of taste
who had died in difficulties, she had not a penny beyond the allowance
provided by her sister's generosity. Nevertheless, she was happy and had
a strong liking and respect for her prosperous brother-in-law, though his
restricted views sometimes irritated her.

She was now trying to arrange her impressions of Canada, which were
mixed. She had looked down on Montreal with its great bridge and broad
river from the wooded mountain, and from there it had struck her as a
beautiful city. Then she had seen the handsome stone houses with their
lawns at the foot of the hill, and afterward the magnificent commercial
buildings round the postoffice. These could scarcely be equaled in
London, but the rest of the town had not impressed her. It was strewn
with sand and cement-dust: they seemed to be pulling down and putting up
buildings and tearing open the streets all over it.

Afterward the Western Express had swept her through a thousand miles of
wilderness, a vast tract of forest filled with rocks and lakes and
rivers; and then she had spent two days in Winnipeg on the verge of the
prairie. This city she found perplexing. The station hall was palatial,
part of wide Main Street and Portage Avenue with their stately banks and
offices could hardly be too much admired, and there were pretty wooden
houses running back to the river among groves of trees. But apart from
this, the place was somehow primitive. There were numerous hard-faced men
hanging about the streets, and it jarred on her to see the rows of
well-dressed loungers in the hotels lolling in wooden chairs close
against the great windows, a foot or two from the street. It gave her a
hint of western characteristics; the people were abrupt, good-naturedly
so, perhaps, but devoid of delicacy.

Last had come the prairie--the land of promise--which seemed to run on
forever, flooded with brilliant sunshine under a sky of dazzling blue.
Banded with miles of wheat, flecked with crimson flowers, it stretched
back, brightly green, until it grew gray and blue on the far horizon. It
was relieved by the neutral purple of poplar bluffs, and little gleaming
lakes; its vastness and openness filled the girl with a sense of liberty.
Narrow restraints, cramping prejudices, must vanish in this wide country;
one's nature could expand and become optimistic here.

Then Colston began to talk.

"We should arrive in the next half-hour and I'll confess to a keen
curiosity about Cyril Jernyngham. He was an amusing and eccentric
scapegrace when I last saw him, though that is a very long time ago."

"You object to eccentricity, don't you?" laughed Muriel.

"Oh, no! Call it originality, and I'll admit that a certain amount is
useful; but it should be kept in check. Indulged in freely, it's apt to
rouse suspicion."

"Which is rather unfair."

"I don't know," Mrs. Colston broke in. "Considered all round, it's an
excellent rule that if you won't do what everybody in your station does,
you must take the consequences."

Colston nodded.

"I agree. One must think of the results to society as a whole."

"Cyril Jernyngham seems to have taken the consequences," Muriel pointed
out. "Isn't there something to be said for the person who does so
uncomplainingly? I understand he never recanted or asked for help."

Mrs. Colston shot a quick glance at her. She did not wish her sister's
sympathy to be enlisted on the black sheep's behalf.

"I believe that's true," she replied. "Perhaps it's hardly to his credit.
His father is an old man who had expected great things of him. If he had
come home, he would have been forgiven and reinstated."

"Yes," said Colston, "though Jernyngham seldom shows his feelings, I know
he has grieved over his son. There can be no question that Cyril should
have returned; I've told him so in my letters."

"I suppose they'd have insisted on a full and abject surrender?"

"Not an abject one," answered Colston. "He would have been expected to
fall in with the family ideas and plans."

"And he wouldn't?" suggested Muriel with a mischievous smile. "I think he
was right." Reading disapproval in her sister's expression, she
continued: "You dear virtuous people are a little narrow in your ideas;
you can't understand that there's room for the greatest difference of
opinion even in a harmonious family, and that it's very silly to drive
the nonconformer into rebellion. Variety's a law of nature and tends to
life."

Colston glanced meaningly at his wife. He was not a hypercritical person,
but it did not please him that his sister-in-law, of whom he was fond,
should champion Jernyngham.

"I don't wish to be severe on Cyril," he rejoined. "As a matter of fact,
I know nothing good or bad about his Canadian life; but he must be
regarded as, so to speak, on probation until he has proved that he
deserves our confidence."

Muriel made no answer. She was looking out of the window toward the west,
and the glow on the vast plain's rim seized her attention. The sunset
flush had faded, but the sky shone a transcendent green. The air was very
clear; every wavy line of bluff was picked out in a wonderful deep blue.
Muriel thought she had never seen such strength and vividness of color.
Then she glanced round the long car. It was comfortable except for the
jolting; the silvery gray of its cane-backed seats contrasted with the
paneling of deep brown. The big lamps and metal fittings gleamed with
nickel. All the girl saw connected her with luxurious civilization, and
she wondered with a stirring of curiosity what awaited her in the wilds,
where man still grappled with nature in primitive fashion.

"Sebastian in three or four minutes!" announced the conductor; and while
Muriel and Mrs. Colston gathered together a few odds and ends a scream of
the whistle broke out.

Prescott heard it on the station platform and with strong misgivings
braced himself for his task. A bright light was speeding down the track,
blending with that flung out by a freight locomotive crossing the
switches. Then amid the clangor of the bell the long cars rolled in and
he saw a man standing on the platform of one. There was no doubt that he
was an Englishman and Prescott hurried toward the car.

"Mr. Henry Colston?" he asked.

The man held out his hand.

"I think Harry is sufficient. Come and speak to Florence; she has been
looking forward to meeting you with interest." He turned. "My dear, this
is Cyril."

Prescott shook hands with the lady on the car platform, and then looked
past her in confused surprise. A girl stood in the vestibule, clad in
garments of pale lilac tint which fell about her figure in long sweeping
lines, emphasizing its fine contour against the dark brown paneling. She
had a large hat of the same color, and it enhanced the attractiveness of
her face, which wore a friendly smile. She was obviously one of the
party, though Jernyngham had not mentioned her, and Prescott pulled
himself together when Colston presented him.

"My sister-in-law, Muriel Hurst," he added.

When they had alighted, Prescott asked for the checks and moved toward
the baggage car. While he waited, watching the trunks being flung out,
Ellice passed him talking to a smartly dressed man. This struck Prescott
as curious, but he knew the man as a traveling salesman for an American
cream-separator, and as he must have called at Jernyngham's homestead on
his round and was no doubt leaving by the train, there was no reason why
Ellice should not speak to him. He thought no more of the matter and
proceeded to carry several trunks and valises across the platform to his
wagon, while his new friends watched him with some surprise. It was a
novel experience in their walk of life to see their host carrying their
baggage, and when Prescott lifted the heaviest trunk Colston hurried
forward to protest.

"Stand aside, please," said the rancher, walking firmly across the boards
with the big trunk on his shoulders. When he had placed it in the wagon
he turned to the ladies with a smile.

"I had thought of putting you up for the night at the hotel, but they're
full, and with good luck we ought to make my place in about three hours.
I dare say this isn't the kind of rig you have been accustomed to driving
in; and somebody will have to sit on a trunk. There's only room for three
on the driving-seat."

Mrs. Colston surveyed the vehicle with misgivings. It was a long, shallow
box set on four tall and very light wheels, and crossed by a seat raised
on springs. Two rough-coated horses were harnessed to it with a pole
between them. She saw this by the glare of the freight locomotive's
head-lamp when the train moved out, and noticed that her husband was
looking at their host in surprise.

"I'll take the trunk," said Colston. "We had dinner down the line not
long ago."

Prescott helped the ladies up and seating himself next to the younger
started his horses. They set off at a rapid trot and the wagon jolted
unpleasantly as it crossed the track. Then the horses broke into a
gallop, raising a dust-cloud in the rutted street, while the light
vehicle rocked in an alarming fashion, and Prescott had some trouble in
restraining them when they ran out on to the dim waste of prairie. Then
the wonderful keen air, faintly scented with wild peppermint, reacted
upon the girl with a curious exhilarating effect. She felt stirred and
excited, expectant of new experiences, perhaps adventures. The wild
barley brushed about the wheels with a silky rustle; the beat of hoofs
rang in a sharp staccato through the deep silence; and the touch of the
faint night wind brought warmth into Muriel's face.

"They're pretty fresh; been in the stable of a farm near here most of the
day," Prescott explained. "Not long off the range, anyhow, and they're
bad to hold."

There was a shrill scream from a dusky shape flitting through the air as
they skirted a marshy pool, and the team again broke into a furious
gallop. The trail was grown with short scrub which smashed beneath the
hoofs, and the vehicle lurched sharply when the wheels left the ruts and
ran through tall, tangled grass. Prescott with some diffidence slipped
his arm round Muriel's waist, while Colston jolted up and down with his
trunk.

"You have still the same taste in horses, Cyril," he remarked. "I suppose
you remember Wildfire?"

"Wildfire?" queried Prescott, and then, having the impression that young
English lads were sometimes given a pony, ventured: "Quite a cute little
beast."

"Little!" exclaimed Colston. "How many hands make a big horse in this
country? I'm speaking of the hunter you cajoled the second groom into
saddling when your father was away. Can't you remember how you insisted
on putting her at the Newby brook?"

"I don't seem to place it somehow," said Prescott in alarm, seeing that
if he were called upon to share any more reminiscences it might lead him
into difficulties. "You know I've been out here a while."

"Long enough to forget, it seems."

Prescott made a bold venture.

"That's so; perhaps it's better. This is a brand new country. One starts
afresh here, looking forward instead of back."

Muriel considered this. The idea was, she thought, appropriate, but the
man's tone and air were not what one would have expected of a reformed
rake. There was no hint of contrition; he spoke with optimistic
cheerfulness.

"Of course," Colston agreed. "I wonder if I might say that you have grown
more Canadian than I expected to find you?"

"More Canadian?" Prescott checked himself in time and laughed. "Is it
surprising? You drive and starve out many a good man who dares to be
original--I've met a number of them. Can you wonder that when they're
welcomed here they're willing to forget you and become one with the
people who took them in?"

"In a way, that's a pity," said Mrs. Colston. "We like to think we
haven't lost you altogether."

Disregarding his horses, Prescott turned toward her with a bow.

"Face the truth, ma'am. If you're ever in a tight place, we'll send you
what help we can, hard men, such as can't be raised in your cities, to
keep the flag flying, but we stop there. Don't think we belong to you--we
stand firm on our own feet, a new free nation. I"--he paused in an
impressive manner--"am a Canadian."

Muriel felt a responsive thrill. His ideas were certainly not English,
nor was his mode of expressing them, but his boldness appealed to her.
Her companions were frankly astonished and rather hurt, which he seemed
to realize, for he resumed with a laugh:

"But we won't talk politics. Things I've heard English people say out
here make one tired."

Then he turned toward the girl, adding softly:

"Was that a very bad break I made?"

"I think it could be forgiven," she told him.

"The years you have spent in Canada seem to have had their full effect on
you," Colston remarked dryly.

Prescott turned his attention to his team, slightly checking their pace.

"What did you mean when you said we should reach your ranch in three
hours, if we had good luck?" Muriel asked.

"Oh," he said, "there are badger burrows about, and a little beast called
a gopher makes almost as bad a hole; they're fond of digging up the
trail. If a horse steps into one of those holes, it's apt to bring him
down. Besides, we trust a good deal to our luck in this country--one has
to run risks that can't be estimated: harvest frost, rust, dry seasons,
winds that blow destroying sand about. I've lost two crops in the eight
years I've been here."

"Can it be eight?" Colston broke in. "If I remember right, you spent
three years in Manitoba."

"It's the same kind of country and the same climate," Prescott rejoined,
conscious that he had nearly betrayed himself again. He felt angry with
Jernyngham for giving him such a difficult part to play.

After this, he carefully avoided any personal topic and talked about
Canadian farming, sitting silent when he could, while Muriel gazed about
with pleasurable curiosity. It is never quite dark on those wide levels in
summertime, and, for there was no moon, the prairie stretched away before
them shadowy, silent, and mysterious. Now they passed a sheet of water,
gleaming wanly among thin willows; then they plunged into the deep gloom
of a poplar bluff; and later, lurching down a steep declivity, swept
through a shallow creek. The air was filled with the smell of dew-damped
soil and unknown aromatic scents, the loneliness was impressive, the
half-obscurity emphasized the strangeness of everything. Muriel felt as if
she had left all that was stereotyped and matter-of-fact far behind. It
was the unexpected and romantic that ought to happen in this virgin land.

Then, worn by several days' journey in the jolting cars, she grew drowsy.
The steady drumming of hoofs, the slapping of the traces, and the rattle
of wheels were strangely soothing. She fancied that once or twice when
they sped furiously down an incline, the driver held her fast, but she
did not resent the support of his arm: it was a steady, reassuring grasp.
At last, as they swung round a poplar bluff, she roused herself, for dim
black buildings loomed up ahead, and one which had lighted windows took
the shape of a small house. The team stopped, there were voices speaking
with a curious accent which reminded her of Norway, and the rancher
helped her down.

Afterward she followed her sister into a simply furnished, pine-boarded
room with a big stove at one end of it, where a middle-aged woman set
food and coffee before them. She spoke English haltingly, but her lined
face lighted up when Muriel thanked her in Norse. Then there followed a
flow of eager words, a few of which the girl caught, until the woman
broke off when their host came in. He was silent, for the most part,
during the meal, and shortly afterward Muriel was shown into a small room
where she went to sleep in a few minutes.



CHAPTER III

JERNYNGHAM MAKES A DECISION


Prescott's guests had spent a week at his homestead with content when
Colston and his wife sat talking one morning.

"I'm frankly puzzled," said Colston, opening his cigar case; "I can't
make Cyril out. He's frugal, remarkably industrious--I think the
description's warranted--and, from all that one can gather, as steady as
a rock. This, of course, is gratifying, but it's by no means what I
expected."

"He certainly doesn't fit in with the picture his sister Gertrude drew
me, though she conveyed the impression that she was softening things
down. There can be no doubt that he was wild. That might, perhaps, be
forgiven, but one or two of the stories I've heard about him filled me
with disgust."

Her husband looked thoughtful. He had not noticed that Muriel was sitting
just outside the open window, though Mrs. Colston, being in a different
position, had done so. She thought their voices would reach the girl, and
if anything strongly in Cyril's disfavor cropped up during the
conversation it might be as well that she should hear it. Mrs. Colston
was willing that he should be reconciled to his relatives, but a reformed
rake was not the kind of man to whom she wished her sister to be
attracted. One could not tell whether the reformation would prove
permanent.

"After all, I never heard any really serious offense proved against him,"
Colston rejoined. "It's sometimes easy to acquire a reputation without
doing anything in particular to deserve it. People are apt to jump at
conclusions."

"When there's a general concurrence of opinion it's wiser to fall in with
it. But what did he say about his father's suggestion that he should go
home?"

"Asked for a day or two to think it over; I fancied that he wished to
consult somebody. Then he promised to give me an answer."

"On the whole, I think they need have no hesitation about taking him back
now," Mrs. Colston responded; and Muriel agreed with her. "There's
another point," she added. "How long shall we stay here?"

"I don't know. I've a growing liking for Cyril, the place is pleasant,
and though things are rather rudimentary, the air's wonderfully bracing.
He urged me to stay some little time, and I felt that he wished it."

Mrs. Colston considered. She was enjoying her visit; everything was
delightfully novel and she felt more cheerful and more vigorous than she
had done for some time. But Muriel seemed to find the prairie pleasant,
and there was a possibility of danger there.

"We might, perhaps, remain another week," she suggested.

As it happened, Colston's suspicion that his host wished to consult
somebody was correct, for Prescott was then driving in to the settlement
to lay his visitor's message before the man it most concerned. He found
him lounging in the hotel bar, and, drawing him into the general-room, he
sat down opposite him in a hard wooden chair. The apartment had no floor
covering and was cheerless and dirty; there was not even a table in it;
and only a railroad time-table and advertisements of land sales hung on
its rough pine walls. Jernyngham, however, looked in keeping with his
surroundings. The dirty bandage still covered his forehead, his clothes
were stained and untidy, and he had an unkempt, dissipated air.

"Well," he asked with a grin, "how are you getting on with your new
friends?"

"I don't know; I'm curious about what they think of me. Anyway, I found
the thing harder than I expected. Why didn't you tell me Mrs. Colston was
bringing her sister?"

"If I ever heard she had one, I forgot it; suppose I couldn't have read
the letter properly. What's she like?"

"Herself," said Prescott. "I can't think of anybody we know I could
compare her with."

He had endeavored to speak carelessly, but something in his voice
betrayed him and Jernyngham laughed.

"That's not surprising. If you want to play your part properly, you had
better make love to her. It's what would be expected of me, and it
couldn't do any harm, because these people would very soon head you off.
Harry Colston's sister-in-law would look for an assured position and at
least five thousand dollars a year. When are they going?"

"I've asked them to stay a little longer and I think they'll agree. But
that is not what I came to see you about. Colston laid a proposition
before me--you're formally invited to return home."

"On what terms?"

Prescott detailed them, watching his companion. The latter sat silent for
a minute or two, and then he said slowly:

"It's a handsome offer, but it was made under a mistake. There's no doubt
that Colston was trusted with powers of discretion. He must be satisfied
with you--don't you feel complimented, Jack?"

"What I feel is outside the question."

"Well," continued Jernyngham thoughtfully, "I suppose if I indulged in a
spell of hard work in the open and practised strict abstinence it might
improve my appearance, and I could, perhaps, keep out of Colston's way,
or if needful, own up to the trick. The old man would hold to his
bargain: he's that kind. It's a strong temptation--you see what I'd stand
to gain--a liberal allowance, a life that's wildly luxurious by
comparison with the one I'm leading, the society of people of the stamp
I've been brought up among. Jack, I feel driven to the point of yielding.
But it's a pity this offer has come too late."

"Is it too late?"

"Think! Would it be fair to go? For a month or two I might keep straight,
then--I've tried to describe my people--you can imagine their feelings at
the inevitable outbreak. Besides, there's a more serious difficulty."
Jernyngham's tense face relaxed into a grim smile. "Can you imagine
Ellice an inmate of an English country house, patronizing local
charities, presiding over prim garden parties? The idea's preposterous!
And that's not all."

Prescott knew little about England, but he could imagine her making an
undesirable sensation in Montreal or Toronto.

"You force me to ask something. Is she Mrs. Jernyngham?" he said,
hesitatingly.

"I used to think so; there's a doubt about the matter now."

"One would have imagined that was a point you would have been sure
about."

"I understood her husband was dead when we were married in Manitoba. She
was a waitress in a second-rate hotel; the brute had ill-used and
deserted her. But there's now some reason to believe he's farming in
Alberta. I haven't made inquiries: I didn't think it would improve
matters."

Prescott said nothing. In face of such a situation, any remarks that he
could make would be superfluous. There was a long silence; and then
Jernyngham spoke again, slowly, but resolutely.

"You see how it is, Jack--where my interest lies. Against that, there's
the feelings of my father and sister to consider. Then my reinstatement
would have to be bought by casting off the woman who has borne with my
failings and stuck to me pluckily. I haven't sunk quite so far as that.
You'll have to tell Colston that I'm staying here!"

He got up and Prescott laid a hand on his arm.

"It's hard; but you're doing the square thing, Cyril."

Jernyngham shook off his hand.

"Don't let us talk in that strain. Come and see Ellice and try to amuse
her. Don't know what's wrong with the woman; she has been moody of late."

"I must get back as soon as I can and I've some business to do."

"Oh, well," acquiesced Jernyngham, walking with him to the bar, which was
the quickest way of leaving.

On reaching it he turned and glanced about sardonically. The room was
dark, filled with flies, and evil smelling, as well as thick with smoke;
half a dozen, untidy men leaned against the counter.

"What a set of loafing swine you are!" he coolly remarked. "It's not to
the point that I'm no better, but if any of you feel insulted, I'll be
happy to make what I've said good."

"Cut it out, Cyril! Can't have a circus here!" exclaimed the bar-tender.

"You needn't be afraid. They look pretty tame," Jernyngham rejoined, and
going on to the door, shook hands with Prescott.

"Tell Colston he has my last word," he said.

Turning away, he proceeded to the untidy parlor where he found Ellice
dawdling over a paper. Her white summer dress was stained in places and
open at the neck, where a button had come off. The short skirt displayed
a hole in one stocking and a shoe from which a strap had been torn.
Jernyngham leaned on the table regarding her with a curious smile.

"What's Jack come about?" she asked.

"To say my fastidious relatives want me to go home, which would mean
leaving you behind."

She looked at him searchingly, and then laughed.

"And you won't go?"

"That's the message I sent."

Ellice's face softened, though there was a hint of indecision in it.

"You're all right, Cyril, only a bit of a fool."

"A bit?" he said dryly. "I'm the whole blamed hog. But enough of that.
We'll pull out for the homestead to-morrow. I expect Wandle is robbing
me."

"He's been robbin' you ever since you bought the ranch. I don't know why
you stopped me from gettin' after him."

"He saves me trouble," explained Jernyngham, and they discussed the
arrangements for their return.

Prescott, arriving home, had a brief private interview with Colston, who
realized with some disappointment that his errand had failed. Then the
rancher harnessed a fresh team and proceeded to a sloo where his
Scandinavian hired man was cutting prairie hay. An hour or two later
Muriel went out on the prairie and walked toward a poplar bluff, in the
shadow of which she gathered ripe red saskatoons, and then sat down to
look about.

The dazzling blue of the sky was broken by rounded masses of silver-edged
clouds that drove along before a fresh northwest breeze. Streaked by
their speeding shadows, the great plain stretched away, checkered by
ranks of marigolds and tall crimson flowers of the lily kind that swayed
as the rippling grasses changed color in the wind. A mile or two distant
stood the trim wooden homestead, with a tall windmill frame near by, girt
by broad sweeps of dark-green wheat and oats. These were interspersed
with stretches of uncovered soil, glowing a deep chocolate-brown, which
Muriel knew was the summer fallow resting after a cereal crop. Beyond the
last strip of rich color, there spread, shining delicately blue, a great
field of flax; and then the dusky green of alfalfa and alsike for the
Hereford cattle, standing knee-deep in a flashing lake. The prairie, she
thought, was beautiful in summer; its wideness was bracing, one was
stirred into cheerfulness and bodily vigor by the rush of its fresh
winds. She felt that she could remain contentedly at the homestead for a
long time; and then her thoughts centered on its owner.

This was perhaps why she rose and strolled on toward the sloo, though she
would not acknowledge that she actually wished to meet him. The man was
something of an enigma and therefore roused in her an interest which was
stronger because of some of the things she had heard to his discredit.
Following the rows of wheelmarks, she brushed through the wild barley,
whose spiky heads whipped her dress, passed a chain of glistening ponds,
a bluff wrapped in blue shadow, and finally descended a long slope to the
basin at its foot where the melting snow had run in spring. Now it had
dried and was covered with tall grass which held many flowers and
fragrant wild peppermint.

A team of horses and a tinkling mower moved through its midst, and at one
edge Prescott was loading the grass into a wagon. Engrossed as he was in
his task, he did not notice her, and she stood a while watching him. He
wore no jacket; the thin yellow shirt, flung open at the neck and tightly
belted at the waist, and the brown duck trousers, showed the lithe grace
of his athletic figure. His poise and swing were admirable, and he was
working with determined energy, his face and uncovered arms the warm
color of the soil.

Muriel drew a little closer and he stopped on seeing her. His brown skin
was singularly clean, his eyes were clear and steady, though they often
gave a humorous twinkle. If this man had ever been a rake, his
reformation must have been drastic and complete, because although she had
a very limited acquaintance with people of that sort, it was reasonable
to conclude that they must bear some sign of indulgence or sensuality.
The rancher had no stamp of either.

He showed his pleasure at her appearance.

"You have had quite a walk," he said. "If you will wait while I put up
the load, I'll take you back."

Muriel sat down and watched him fling the grass in heavy forkfuls on to
the growing pile, until at last he clambered up upon the frame supporting
it and, pulling some out and ramming the rest back, proceeded to excavate
a hollow.

"What are you doing?" she asked.

"Making a nest for you," he told her with a laugh. "Now, if you'll get
up."

While she mounted by the wheel he stood on the edge of the wagon, leaning
down toward her. There did not seem to be much foothold, the grass looked
slippery, and the hollow he had made was beyond her reach, but she seized
the hand he held out and he swung her up. For a moment his fingers
pressed tightly upon her waist, and then she was safe in the hollow,
smiling at him as he found a precarious seat on the rack.

"You couldn't see how you were going to get up, but you didn't hesitate,"
he said with a soft laugh, when he had started his team.

"No," she smiled back at him. "Somehow you inspire one with confidence. I
didn't think you would let me fall."

"Curious, isn't it?"

She reclined in the recess among the grass, which yielded to her limbs in
a way that gave her a sense of voluptuous ease. Her pose, although
scarcely a conventional one, showed to advantage the fine contour of her
form; and the lilac-tinted dress that flowed in classic lines about her
made a patch of cool restful color on the warm ocher of her surroundings.
It was easy to read the man's admiration in his glance, and she became
suddenly filled with mischievous daring.

"Cyril," she said, "you are either an excellent actor, or else--"

"I have been maligned. Is that what you meant?"

"I think I did mean something of the kind."

"Then I'm a very poor actor. That should settle the question."

"I've wondered how you became so very Canadian," she said thoughtfully.

"What's the matter with the Canadians?"

"Nothing. I haven't met very many yet, but on the whole I'm favorably
impressed by them. They're direct, blunt, perhaps less complex than we
are."

"No trimmings," he suggested. "They don't muss up good material so that
it can hardly be recognized. You can tell what a man is when you see him
or hear him talk."

"I don't know," Muriel argued. "I've an idea that it might be difficult,
even in Canada."

He let this pass.

"What do you think of the country?" he asked.

She glanced round. It was late in the afternoon and somewhat cooler than
it had been. Half the plain lay in shadow, but the light was curiously
sharp. A clump of ragged jack-pines stood on a sandhill miles away, and a
lake twinkled in the remote distance. The powerful Clydesdale horses
plodded through short crackling scrub; a fine scent of wild peppermint
floated about.

"Oh," she responded, "it's delightful! And everybody's so energetic! You
move with a spring and verve; and I don't hear any grumbling, though
there seems to be so much to do!"

"And to bear now and then: crops wiped out--I've lost two of them. The
work never slackens, except in winter, when you sit shivering beside the
stove, if you're not hauling in building logs or cordwood through the
arctic frost. At night it's deadly silent, unless there's a blizzard
howling; the plains are very lonely when the snow lies deep. Don't you
think you're better off in England, taking it all 'round?"

He laid respectful fingers on the hem of her skirt, touching the fine
material, as if appraising its worth.

"Our wheat-growers' wives and daughters are lucky if they've a couple of
moderately smart dresses, but I suppose you have several trunks full of
things like this. That and the kind of life it implies must count for
something."

"I believe I have," said Muriel with candor, answering his steady
inquiring glance. "Still, I've felt that we drift along from amusement to
amusement in a purposeless way, doing nothing that's worth while. There
might come a time when one would grow very tired of it."

"It must come and bring trouble then. Here one goes on from task to task,
each one bigger and more venturesome than the last; acre added to acre, a
gasoline tractor to the horse-plow, another quarter-section broken. Mind
and body taxed all day and often half the night. One can't sit down and
mope."

This was, she thought, a curious speech for a man who had been described
as careless, extravagant, and dissolute; but he was getting too serious,
and she laughed.

"You were energetic enough in England, if reports are true. I've often
thought of your right-of-way adventure. It must have been very dramatic
when you appeared at the garden party covered with fresh tar."

"Sounds like that, doesn't it?" he cautiously agreed. "How do they tell
the tale?"

"Something like this--you were at the Hall with Geoffrey when the
townspeople were clamoring about Sir Gilbert's closing the path through
the wood, and for some reason you assisted them in attacking the
barricade. It had been well tarred as a defensive measure, hadn't it?
Then you returned, triumphant, black from head to foot, when you thought
the guests had gone, and plunged into the middle of the last of
them--Maud always laughs when she talks about it. Sir Gilbert was
somewhere out of sight when you related the rabble's brilliant victory,
but he dashed out red in face when he understood and never stopped until
he jumped into his motor. I don't think Geoffrey's wife has forgiven
you."

Prescott smiled.

"Well," he said, "I must have grown very staid since then."

Muriel changed the subject, but they talked with much good-humor until
they reached the homestead, where the man alighted and held out his arms
to her. She hesitated a moment, and then was seized by him and swung
gently to the ground, but she left him with a trace of heightened color
in her face and went quietly into the house.



CHAPTER IV

MURIEL FEELS REGRET


It was pleasantly cool in the shadow of Jernyngham's wooden barn, where
Prescott sat, talking to its owner. Outside the strip of shade, the sun
fell hot upon the parched grass, and the tall wheat that ran close up to
the homestead swayed in waves of changing color before the rush of
breeze. The whitened, weather-worn boards of the house, which faced the
men, seemed steeped in glowing light, and sounds of confused activity
issued from the doorway that was guarded by mosquito-netting. A clatter
of domestic utensils indicated that Ellice was baking, and she made more
noise than she usually did when she was out of temper. Jernyngham
listened with faint amusement as he filled his pipe.

"Sorry I can't ask you in, Jack," he said. "The kitchen is a pretty large
one, but when Ellice starts bread-making, there isn't a spot one can sit
down in. Of course, we've another living-room--I furnished it rather
nicely--but for some reason we seldom use it."

The mosquito door swung back with a crash and Ellice appeared in the
entrance with a hot, angry face, and hands smeared with dough, her hair
hanging partly loose in disorder about her neck, her skirt ungracefully
kilted up.

"Ain't you goin' to bring that water? Have I got to wait another hour?"
she cried, ignoring Prescott.

Jernyngham rose and moved away. Returning, he disappeared into the
kitchen with a dripping pail and Ellice's voice was raised in harsh
upbraiding. Then the man came out, looking a trifle weary, though he sat
down by Prescott with a smile.

"These things should be a warning, Jack," he said. "Still, one has to
make allowances; this hot weather's trying, and Ellice got a letter that
disturbed her by the last mail. I didn't hear what was in it, but I
suspect it was a bill."

Prescott nodded, because he did not know what to say. Mrs. Jernyngham
had, he gathered, been unusually fractious for the last week or two, and
Cyril was invariably forbearing. Indeed, Prescott sometimes wondered at
his patience, for he imagined that his comrade had outgrown what love he
had borne her. The man had his virtues: he was rash, but he seldom failed
to face the consequences with whimsical good-humor.

"Your friends are going to-morrow," Prescott told him. "They understand
that you will write home and explain your reasons for remaining."

"I suppose I'll have to do so, though it will be difficult. You see, to
give the reasons that count most would be cruel. If it's any comfort to
my folks to think favorably of me, I'd rather let them. I've made a
horrible mess of things, but that's no reason why others should suffer."

Prescott glanced round at the dilapidated house, the untidy stable, the
door of which was falling to pieces, and the wagon standing with a broken
wheel. There was no doubt that Jernyngham was right in one respect.

"Jack," Cyril resumed, "your manner gives me the impression that you'll
be sorry to lose your visitors."

"I shall be sorry. I pressed them to stay and I think they'd have done
so, only that Mrs. Colston was against it."

"Ah! That strikes me as significant. You see, I can make a good guess at
her motives; I've suffered from that kind of thing. She evidently
considers you dangerous. Don't you feel flattered?"

"Mrs. Colston has no cause for uneasiness; I could wish she had."

"Then I'm glad my friends are going. It will save you trouble, Jack. A
match between Miss Hurst and you is out of the question."

"I've felt that, so far as my merits go, which is the best way I can put
it," said Prescott gravely. "You speak as if there were stronger
reasons."

"There are; I'm a little surprised you don't see them. Your merits--I
suppose you mean your character and appearance--should go a long way;
we'll admit that you're a man who might have some attraction for even
such a girl as Miss Hurst seems to be, if she didn't pause to think.
Unfortunately for you, however, it's her duty to her relatives to make a
brilliant match and I've no doubt she recognizes it. Girls of her
station--you had better face the truth, Jack--never marry beneath them."

"But a man may."

"A fair shot," laughed Jernyngham. "I can't resent it. But the man
generally suffers, and the price is a heavier one when the girl has to
pay. There's a penalty for breaking caste."

"You seem to tolerate worse things in the old country."

"Not often, after all--you hear of the flagrant offenders, and though I
dare say there are others who are not found out, the bulk against whom
there's no reproach, excite no attention. But we'll let that go. I want
you to understand. You're right, Jack; it's your position that's all
wrong. Girls of the kind we're considering are brought up in luxury,
taught every accomplishment that's economically useless, led to believe
that every comfort they need will somehow be supplied. They're charming
in their proper environment, but it's a cruelty to take them out of it.
They'd be helpless in this grim country, where you must work for all you
want and do without many things even then. Can you imagine Miss Hurst
standing over a hot stove all day and spending her evenings mending your
worn-out shirts?"

Prescott looked up, his face set hard.

"You have said enough."

There was silence after this, until a big man dressed in old brown
overalls stopped his horse near-by.

"I've fixed up with Farrer to send over his gasoline tractor to do the
fall breaking," he said. "Saw the telephone construction people yesterday
and told them I'd let them have two teams to haul in their poles. It's
going to pay us better than keeping them for plowing."

"Quite right, Wandle," replied Jernyngham, and the fellow nodded to
Prescott and rode away.

He lived on the next half-section and assisted Jernyngham in the
management of his ranch, besides sharing the cost of labor, implements
and horses with him, though Prescott had cause for believing that the
arrangement was not to his friend's benefit.

"You'd be better off if you didn't work with that man," he said.

"It's possible," Jernyngham agreed. "I know he robs me, but he saves me
bother. Besides, if we decided to separate and came to a settlement, I
dare say he would claim that I was in his debt; and he might be right.
I'm no good at business. Ranching I don't mind, but I could never learn
how to buy and sell."

"It's a very useful ability," Prescott rejoined with some dryness. "But
as I want to be home for supper, I must get on."

He unhitched his horse and mounted, and Jernyngham walked with him to the
gate in the wire fence.

"You'll remember what I told you, Jack," he said meaningly.

"Yes," Prescott answered with a stern face. "I suppose I ought to thank
you. I'm not likely to forget."

He rode home and arriving in time for supper took his place at the table
with mixed feelings, foremost among which was keen regret. Except for the
company of his Scandinavian hired man and the latter's hard-featured
wife, he had lived alone in Spartan simplicity, thinking of nothing but
his farm; and his guests' arrival had revealed to him the narrowness of
his life. They had brought him new desires and thoughts, besides
recalling ideas he had long forgotten, and among other things had made
the evening meal a pleasant function to be looked forward to, instead of
an opportunity for hurriedly consuming needed food.

The spotless cloth and the flowers on the table were novelties, but they
pleased his eye. Colston with his cheerful, well-bred air and
fastidiousness in dress, talked interestingly; Mrs. Colston with her
gracious dignity, and Muriel, who was wholly alluring, seemed to fill the
room with charm. It was perhaps all the more enjoyable because Prescott
had been accustomed to pleasant society in Montreal, before he abandoned
it with other amenities and went out to a life of stern toil and
frugality in the grim Northwest.

He said little, though it was the last time they would gather tranquilly
round his board--they were to leave for the railroad early on the morrow.
A heavy melancholy oppressed him, though bright sunlight streamed into
the room and an invigorating breeze swept in through the open window,
outside which tall wheat and blue flax rolled away. He could not force
himself to talk, though he laughed at Colston's anecdotes, and it was a
relief when the meal was over. Half an hour later he overtook Muriel
strolling along the edge of the wheat.

"Have you recovered yet?" she asked. "You looked very downcast."

"That's how I feel. It strikes me as perfectly natural. I'll be alone
to-morrow."

"But you were alone before we came."

"Very true; I didn't seem to mind it then. I was happy thinking how I
could put in a bigger crop or raise another bunch of stock. My mind was
fixed on the plow. But you have lifted me out of the furrow. I guess it's
weak, but somehow I hate the thought of going back to the clods."

Remembering Jernyngham's remarks, it struck him that this was not the
line he should have taken, and for a moment or two Muriel turned her
head. Then she looked at him, smiling.

"I shall be very sorry to leave, and I believe Florence and Harry feel
the same."

"But you are going to British Columbia and down the Pacific Coast. You
will revel in new experiences and interesting sights."

"I suppose so," she answered, rather listlessly. "We shall get a glimpse
of a new country, but that will be all. On the steamers we'll meet much
the kind of people we are accustomed to, and no doubt we'll stay at
hotels built especially for luxurious tourists. You see, we take our
usual environment along with us."

"But isn't that what you like?"

"I don't know; perhaps it ought to be." Muriel paused and looked up at
him with candid eyes. "You hinted that we had given you a new and wider
outlook--or brought back the one you used to have, which is what you must
have meant. You don't seem to realize that you have done much the same
thing to me."

"I'm not sure I understand."

"It shouldn't be difficult. You know the kind of people I have hitherto
met, and how we spend our time in a round of amusements that lead to
nothing, with all that could jar on one carefully kept away. This is the
first time I've come into touch with strenuous, normal life."

"And it doesn't seem to have frightened you?"

"No," she said with a smile; "I'm not in the least afraid--why should I
be? I must have more courage than you think, but does one need a great
deal of it to live here?"

He looked at her in grave admiration. There was a hint of pride in her
pose, and her eyes were calm.

"I believe if ever a time of stress came, you wouldn't shrink. But this
is a pretty hard and lonely country, especially in winter."

Muriel changed the subject.

"For all that, I feel you are right in staying, Cyril. Have you written
to your people?"

Prescott felt embarrassed and guilty, as he generally did when, in
confidential moments, she called him by Jernyngham's name. Somehow he
could not imagine her saying Jack.

"No," he rejoined slowly. "Of course, they must be written to."

Muriel did not answer. The turn their conversation had taken had filled
her with a vague unrest as she looked back at the life she had led. Three
or four years ago it had seemed filled with glamour and excitement, and
she had entered on its pleasures with eager zest, but of late she had
begun to find them wearisome. They no longer satisfied her. If this were
the result of a few years' experience, what would she feel when she had
grown jaded with time and everything was stale? Then her glimpse of the
simple, healthful western life had come as a revelation. It was real, a
bracing struggle, in which no effort was wasted but produced tangible
results: broad stretches of splendid wheat, sweeps of azure flax.

But this was not all. She felt drawn to her brown-faced companion, who
had obviously redeemed whatever errors he had been guilty of in the past.
She had known him for only about a fortnight, but she had seen his
admiration for her with a satisfaction that was slightly tempered by
misgivings. She could not tell exactly what she expected from him, but
she had at least looked for some expression of a wish that their
acquaintance should not end abruptly on the morrow. She did not think she
would have resented a carefully modified display of the gallantry Cyril
Jernyngham must be capable of, if reports were true. Considering what his
past was supposed to have been, the grave man who watched her with
troubled eyes was hard to understand.

"Cyril," she asked, "has Harry given you our address at Glacier and
Banff?"

He supposed that this implied permission to write to her, but he could
not do so as Jack Prescott and he already bitterly regretted that he had
allowed her to think of him as Jernyngham.

"Yes," he said, with a carelessness which cost him an effort. "But I'm
afraid I'm not a good correspondent. I'm too busy, for one thing."

"Too busy?" she mocked, with a stronger color in her face. "Can't you
spare half an hour from your plowing to write to your friends?"

"Well," he answered with forced coolness, "it's difficult, except, of
course, in the winter and you'll be back in England then, with so many
festivities on hand that you won't be anxious to hear about Canada."

She looked at him for a moment, puzzled and a little angry, and he
guessed her thoughts. He was behaving like a boor; but it was better that
she should think him one.

"How very un-English you have become!" she said.

"You mean I'm very Canadian? Anyway, I try to be sensible--I've done some
wretchedly foolish things and I've got to pay for them. Of course, this
visit's only an episode to you; something that's soon over and
forgotten."

There was trouble in his voice, though he strove to speak with
indifference, and after a swift glance at him she answered coldly:

"I suppose it is. One impression rubs out another, and no doubt we shall
see something novel and interesting farther on. However, we won't stay in
Canada very long and we shall see your father and sister as soon as we
get home. It's curious that you have scarcely mentioned them."

"Oh, well," he evaded awkwardly, "Harry has told me a good deal."

He turned his head, dreading her curious eyes. His last evening in her
company was proving more trying than he had expected; though usually
tolerant and good-humored, the strain made him bitter. To-morrow he must
put this girl out of his mind. After all, it was to Cyril Jernyngham,
rake and wastrel, but a man of her own station, that she had been
gracious and charming; had she known he was Jack Prescott, she would, no
doubt, have treated him very differently; but in this supposition he did
her wrong.

Puzzled by his lack of responsiveness and with wounded pride, she stopped
and looked out toward the northwest across the prairie. Steeped in strong
coloring, it seemed to run back into immeasurable distance, though a
wonderful blaze of crimson marked its rim. The faint, cool air that
flowed across it was charged with a curious exhilarating quality; there
was a subtle fragrance of herbs in the grass.

"It's getting late," she said; "I must go in. This is the last sunset I
shall watch on the prairie, and in several ways I'm sorry. You have made
our stay here very pleasant."



CHAPTER V

THE MYSTERY OF THE MUSKEG


Colston and his party had been gone a fortnight when Prescott called at
the Jernyngham homestead one afternoon and found its owner sitting
moodily in the kitchen, which presented a chaotic appearance. Unwashed
plates and dishes were scattered about, the wood-box was overturned and
poplar billets strewed the floor, there was no fire in the rusty stove,
and the fragments of a heavy crock lay against the wall. The strong
sunlight that streamed in emphasized the disorder of the room.

"I was passing and thought I'd come in," Prescott explained. "Where's
Mrs. Jernyngham? The look of the place gives one the idea that she's not
at home."

"It's never remarkably tidy." Jernyngham broke into a rueful smile. "I
believe she started for the settlement when I was at work in the summer
fallow this morning. The fact that the horse and buggy are missing points
to it."

"But don't you know whether she has gone or not?"

"I don't," said Jernyngham. "She didn't acquaint me with her intentions.
As I see she has taken some things along, it looks as if she meant to
visit Mrs. Harvey at the store. They're friends now and then."

His manner was suggestive, though he looked more resigned than disturbed,
and Prescott, glancing at the shattered crock, ventured a question which
he feared was not quite judicious:

"How did you break that thing?"

"It ought to be a warning. I didn't break it; it was meant to break on
me. Ellice flung it at my head a day or two ago, and fortunately missed,
though as a rule she's a pretty good shot. I suppose it's significant
that neither of us troubled to pick up the pieces."

Prescott looked sympathetic, and hesitated, with his half-filled pipe in
his hand.

"Shall I go, Cyril? I want to make Sebastian before it's dark."

"Sit still," Jernyngham told him. "I'm in an expansive mood, and I've a
notion that I'm not far off a crisis in my affairs. Ellice has been
fractious lately; I seem to have been getting on her nerves, which
perhaps is not surprising."

Prescott made no comment and after sitting silent a few moments
Jernyngham resumed:

"I was rather rash when I ventured to remonstrate about a bill. Ellice
pointed out, with justice, that so long as I slouched round and let
Wandle rob me, I'd no right to grumble at her for buying a few things.
Most unwisely I maintained my point and"--he indicated the broken crock
and littered table--"you see the consequences."

"Wandle is a bit of a rogue," said Prescott, choosing the safest topic.
"I've told you so."

"You have. For all that, he's useful and I don't mind being robbed in
moderation; I'm a man who's accustomed to losing things." His
half-mocking tone grew serious. "I wrote to my people, as soon as Colston
left, telling them I'd determined to remain in Canada; but if it wasn't
for Ellice, I think I'd quit farming."

Prescott smoked in silence for a while. Jernyngham had made a costly
sacrifice, chiefly on the woman's account, and Prescott felt sorry for
him.

"Perhaps I'd better get on," he said after a while.

For a few moments Jernyngham looked irresolute, and then he got up.

"I'll come with you to Sebastian. I think I'd have gone earlier, only
Ellice had the horse and rig, and Wandle's using the wagon team. It's no
doubt my duty to sue for peace."

They set out shortly afterward and reaching Sebastian late in the evening
drove to the livery-stable, where Jernyngham called the man who took
Prescott's team.

"I suppose you have my horse?" he asked.

"Sure," said the fellow, looking at him curiously. "Mrs. Jernyngham said
we'd better keep him until you came in. She left a note for you with the
boss; he's in the hotel."

Jernyngham crossed the street, followed by his companion, and Prescott
noticed that the loungers in the bar seemed interested when they came in.
Two of them put down their glasses and turned to fix their eyes on
Jernyngham, a third paused in the act of lighting his pipe and dropped
the match. Then the owner of the livery-stable looked up in a hesitating
manner as Jernyngham approached him.

"I believe you have a message for me," Jernyngham said abruptly.

"That's so," the man rejoined gravely. "I'll give it to you outside."

They left the bar, and when they stood under the veranda, Jernyngham tore
open the envelope handed him. A moment later he firmly crumpled up the
note it had held.

"When did she leave?" he asked in a harsh voice.

The liveryman regarded him sympathetically.

"By the afternoon East-bound. I'm mighty sorry, Cyril--guess you know it
isn't a secret in the town."

Jernyngham's face grew darkly flushed.

"Then you can tell me whom she went with?"

"The drummer who was selling the separators. Bought tickets through to
St. Paul. Told Perkins he wasn't coming back here; nothing doing on this
round."

The man tactfully moved away and Jernyngham turned to Prescott, speaking
rather hoarsely.

"She's gone--that's the end of it!"

He dropped into one of the chairs scattered about and a few moments later
broke into a bitter laugh.

"It would have been more flattering if she had chosen you or Wandle
instead of that blasted weedy drummer. Still, there the thing is, and it
has to be faced." Then he surprised his companion, for his voice and
expression became suddenly normal. "Go in and get me a cigar."

He lighted it carefully when it was brought to him and leaned back in his
chair.

"Jack," he said, "I've got to hold myself in hand--if I start off on the
jag now, it will be a dangerous one. Have you noticed that I've been
practising strict abstinence since Colston left?"

Prescott, not knowing how to regard his ironic calmness, said nothing,
and Jernyngham continued:

"It's a bitter pill. I was very fond of her once, and there's not much
consolation in reflecting that she'll probably scare the fellow out of
his wits the first time she breaks out in one of her rages." Then his
voice grew regretful. "Ellice's far from perfect, but she's much too good
for him."

Remembering that it was on the woman's account his friend had remained on
the prairie, Prescott made a venture:

"Since she has gone, it's a pity she didn't go a few weeks earlier."

"That doesn't count," declared Jernyngham. "She has cause to blame me as
much for marrying her--one must try to be just. I thought of her when I
determined to stay, but my own weaknesses played as big a part in
deciding me."

He sat silent a while, and then indicated his surroundings with a
contemptuous sweep of his hand--the dirty sidewalk strewn with cigar ends
and banana peelings, the straggling houses with their cracked board walls
and ugly square fronts, the rutted street down which drifted clouds of
dust.

"Jack," he said, "I'm very sick of all this, and I can't face the lonely
homestead now Ellice's gone. I must have a change and something to brace
me; something that has a keener bite than drink. Think I'll take a
haulage job on the new railroad, where there ought to be rough and risky
work, and I'll leave this place to-night. Come across with me to
Morant's, and I'll see what I can borrow on the land."

The sudden unreasoning decision was characteristic of him, but Prescott
expostulated.

"You can't clear out in this eccentric fashion; there are a number of
things to be settled first."

"I think I can," Jernyngham retorted dryly. "It's certain that I can't
stay here."

He took his companion with him to call on a land-agent and mortgage-broker,
and when they left the office Jernyngham had a bulky roll of bills in his
pocket.

"Jack," he requested, "you'll run my place and pay Morant off after
harvest; if Wandle gets his hands on it, there'll be very little left
when I come back. You may have trouble with him, but you must hold out.
Charge me with all expenses and pay as much of the surplus as you think
I'm entitled to into my bank when you have sold the crop. Now if you'll
come into the hotel, I'll give you a written authority and get Perkins to
witness it."

Prescott demurred at first, but eventually yielded because he believed
his friend's interest would need looking after in his absence. After some
discussion they agreed on a workable scheme, which was put down in
writing and witnessed by the hotel-keeper. Then Jernyngham borrowed a
saddle and sent for his horse.

"I'll pull out for the railroad now; it's cooler riding at night and
there's a good moon," he said. "As I'll pass close to your place, you may
as well drive so far with me."

They set off, Prescott seated on the front of his jolting wagon,
Jernyngham riding as near it as the roughness of the trail permitted,
with a blanket and a package of provisions strapped to his saddle. He was
wearing a hat of extra-thick felt and uncommon shape which had been given
him by a man who had broken his journey for the purpose of seeing the
country when returning from Hong Kong by the Canadian Pacific route. Soon
after they left Sebastian, a young trooper of the Northwest Police
dressed in khaki uniform came trotting up in the moonlight and joined
them.

"Where are you off to, Jernyngham?" he asked, glancing at the rolled up
blanket. "Looks as if you meant to camp on the trail."

"I'll have to, most likely," said Jernyngham. "I'm leaving the farm to
Prescott for a while and heading for Nelson's Butte on the new road."

"What are you going to do there?"

"Thought I'd pick up a horse or two at one of the ranches I'll pass and
apply for a teaming job. Contractor was asking for haulage tenders; he's
having trouble among the sandhills and muskegs."

"Then you'll be taking a wad of money along?"

Jernyngham assented and the trooper looked thoughtful.

"Now," he cautioned, "there's a pretty tough crowd at Nelson, and though
we stopped any licenses being issued, we've had trouble over the
running-in of liquor. Then you have a long ride before you through a
thinly-settled country. You want to be careful about that money."

"The settlers are to be trusted."

"That's so, but we have reason to believe the rustlers are at work in the
district; seem to have been going into the liquor business, and I've
heard of horses missing. Now that the boys have stopped their branding
other people's calves in Alberta and corralled their leaders, it looks as
if the fellows were beginning the game in this part of the country."

"Thanks," said Jernyngham. "I may as well take precautions. How would you
recommend my carrying the money?"

The trooper made one or two ingenious suggestions as to the safest way of
secreting the bills, and Jernyngham, dismounting, carried them out. Soon
afterward the trooper struck off across the plain, and the others, riding
on, met a farmer who spoke to them as he passed. At length Prescott
pulled up his team at the spot where his companion must leave the trail.

"I'll do what I can with the land, Cyril, and keep an account," he said.
"You might write and let me know how you are getting on."

They shook hands and Jernyngham trotted away, while Prescott sat watching
him for a minute or two. Man and horse were sharply outlined against the
moonlit grass. Jernyngham looked very lonely as he rode out into the
wilderness. He could hardly have been happy, Prescott thought, in his
untidy and comfortless house at the farm; but, after all, it had been a
home, and now he was rudely flung adrift. It was true that the man was
largely responsible for the troubles that had fallen upon him, but this
was no reason for refusing him pity, and Cyril had his strong points. He
had staunchly declined to profit by a felicitous change of fortune out of
consideration for the relatives who had once disowned and the woman who
had deserted him. Jernyngham had been a careless fool, and Prescott
suspected that he was not likely to alter much in this respect, but he
did not expect others to pay for his recklessness when the reckoning
came. Then Prescott started his team.

Two days later, he was busy in front of his homestead putting together a
new binder which had just arrived from the settlement. It was the latest
type of harvesting implement and designed to cut an unusually broad
swath. While he was engaged, the trooper he had met when accompanying
Jernyngham rode up with a corporal following. He stopped his horse and
glanced at the binder with admiration.

"She's a daisy, Jack; I guess she cost a pile," he said. "Where did you
get the money to buy a machine of that kind?"

"It wasn't easy to raise it," Prescott replied. "But I'll save something
in labor--harvest wages are high--and I've long wanted this binder. When
Trant came round from the implement store yesterday morning I thought I'd
risk the deal. Will you wait for dinner?"

"No, thanks," the corporal broke in. "We're making a patrol north; just
called to look at your guards. Several big grass fires have been reported
in the last few days."

Prescott pointed to the rows of plowed furrows which cut off his holding
from the prairie. The strip of brown clods, which was two or three yards
in width, seemed an adequate defense, and after a glance at it the
corporal nodded his satisfaction.

"Good enough," he said. "We'll take the trail."

He trotted away with his companion and it was evening when they rode
along the edge of a ravine which pierced a high tract of rolling country.
The crest of the slope they followed commanded a vast circle of grass
that was changing in the foreground from green to ocher and silvery
white. Farther back, it ran on toward the sunset, a sweep of blue and
neutral gray, flecked with dusky lines of bluffs, interspersed with
gleaming strips of water, but nowhere in the wide landscape was there a
sign of human habitation. Small birches and poplars, with an undergrowth
of nut bushes, clothed the sides of the ravine, but some distance ahead
it broadened out and the stream that flowed through it turned the hollow
into a muskeg. There harsh grass and reeds grew three or four feet high,
hiding the stretch of mire.

The police were young men with deeply bronzed faces, dressed in smart
khaki uniform with broad Stetson hats of the same color.

"What's that?" exclaimed Corporal Curtis, pointing to an indistinct
object lying among a patch of scrub some distance off.

"Looks like a hat," replied Private Stanton. "Some settler prospecting
for a homestead location must have lost it."

"You jump at things!" said the corporal. "How'd the man lose it? Guess it
wouldn't drop off without his knowing it, and with the sun we've been
having he'd want it pretty bad. He wouldn't throw it away, when he knew
he couldn't get another. We'll go along and see."

They dismounted a minute or two later and made a startling discovery. The
hat was a good one, but in one place the soft gray felt had been crushed
and partly cut as though by a heavy blow. On turning it over, they saw
that the inside was stained a dull red.

"Blood!" said Curtis significantly, and swept a searching glance about.
"More of it," he added. "See here--on the brush."

Moving forward, they found a succession of crimson spots and splashes on
the leaves of the willow scrub and withering grass.

"Picket the horses. Stanton; we've got to look into this," the corporal
said.

"I'd better lead them back a piece," responded his companion. "We don't
want to muss up things by making fresh tracks."

When he had done so, they set about the examination systematically. They
were men who lived, for the most part, in the open, and made long
journeys through the wilds, sleeping where they could find shelter in
ravine or bluff. Such things as a broken twig, a bruised tuft of grass,
or a mark in loose soil had a meaning to them, and here they had
plentiful material to work upon. Counting footprints and hoofmarks,
measuring distances, they constructed bit by bit the drama that had taken
place, but half an hour had passed before they sat down to talk it over
and took out their pipes. The afterglow shone about them; their hands and
thoughtful faces showed the same warm color as the brown grass in the
ruddy light. In the hat lay a five-dollar bill and a coat button.

"There were two men here," Curtis remarked. "Both were mounted and came
up the trail from the settlement, but it looks as if the first one had
picketed his horse and started to make camp when the other joined him."

"That's so," Private Stanton agreed.

"Then there was trouble, but the men didn't clinch. One fellow hit the
other with something heavy enough to drop him in his tracks, then got
into the saddle and rode off, leading the other horse."

The evidence on which he arrived at this conclusion was slender, but
Stanton signified assent.

"Well," he said, "where's the hurt man?"

"I've a notion he's in yonder muskeg. The other fellow could have packed
him there on the led horse--the blood spots point to it--though he might
have hid him farther on in a bluff. It's getting too dark to search now;
we'll try to-morrow. But I guess we know who he is."

"Sure," said Stanton. "I'll swear to the hat. Chaffed Jernyngham about it
one day, and he put it in my hands and said there wasn't another of the
kind in the country. A man from Hong Kong gave it to him."

Curtis took up the bill.

"Five dollars, Merchants' Bank, and quite clean; not been issued long.
We'll find out if they've a branch at Regina or Saskatoon and trace up
the fellow they paid it to. The button doesn't count--quite a common
pattern. Now if you'll fill the kettle at the creek, I'll start a fire.
We'll camp near the birch scrub yonder."



CHAPTER VI

A DEAL IN LAND


On the morning after the corporal's discovery, Gustave Wandle was leading
his team to a drinking pool on the creek that crossed his farm. He was a
big, reserved, fair-haired man, with a fleshy face that was redeemed from
heaviness by his eyes, which were restless and keen. Though supposed to
be an Austrian, little was known about him or his antecedents except that
he owned the next half-section of land to Jernyngham's and farmed it
successfully. It was, however, believed that he was of an unusually
grasping nature, and his neighbors took precautions when they made a deal
with him. He had reached the shadow of a poplar bluff when he heard
hurried footsteps and a man with a hot face came into sight.

"I'm going across your place to save time; I want my horse," he explained
hastily. "Curtis, the policeman, has ridden in to the settlement and told
me to go up and search a muskeg near the north trail with Stanton.
Somebody's killed Jernyngham and hidden him there."

"So!" exclaimed Wandle. "Jernyngham murdered! You tell me that?"

"Sure thing!" the other replied. "The police have figured out how it all
happened and I'm going to look for the body while Curtis reports to his
bosses. A blamed pity! I liked Jernyngham. Well, I must get to the muskeg
soon as I can!"

He ran on, and Wandle led his horses to the pool and stood thinking hard
while they drank. He was well versed in Jernyngham's affairs and knew
that he had once bought a cheap quarter-section of land in an arid belt
some distance off. A railroad had since entered the district, irrigation
work had been begun, and the holding must have risen in value. Now, it
seemed, Jernyngham was dead, which was unfortunate, because Wandle had
found their joint operations profitable, and it was very probable that
Ellice and himself were the only persons who knew about the land. Wandle
mounted one of the horses and set out for Jernyngham's homestead at its
fastest pace.

On reaching it, he soon found an iron cash-box in a cupboard and succeeded
in forcing it with a screw-driver. It contained a few papers, among which
were one or two relating to the purchase of the quarter-section, and
Wandle put these in his pocket. The others he threw into the
cupboard--Jernyngham's carelessness was well known--and then hastily
studied a railroad time-table. By starting promptly, he could catch a
train at the station next after Sebastian, which he thought would be
wiser, and reach a new wooden town of some importance in the evening.
Having ascertained this, he hurried out and rode home, taking the cash-box
with him. On arriving, he smashed it flat with an ax and flung it into his
stove in which a fire was burning; then he made a hasty meal, changed his
clothes, and saddling a horse, rode hard across the prairie. There was, he
realized, some risk in what he meant to do, but it was not a very serious
one, and he was thankful that the sale of land is attended by few
formalities in western Canada.

When he reached his destination, business premises were closed for the
night, but after making inquiries he found a land agent who was
recommended as respectable and trustworthy at a smart hotel. Wandle led
him to the far end of the lobby, where they would not be disturbed, and
sitting down at a table took out the papers.

"What's that quarter-section worth?" he asked.

The agent told him and Wandle lighted his pipe and affected to consider.
He thought Jernyngham had not suspected its value.

"Don't you think you could get another three dollars an acre?" he
suggested.

"It's possible, if you will leave the sale in my hands; but I may have to
wait for a suitable opportunity. There's a good demand for land in the
district now that they're getting on with the irrigation scheme, but to
insist on the top price will mean delay."

"Could you sell it for me promptly at the figure you mentioned?"

"Why, yes," said the agent. "I've a number of inquiries for farming land
on my books. I shouldn't wonder if I fixed the thing up in a week."

"I can't wait a week. There's a pretty good haulage contract I could get,
but it will take some financing, which is what brought me along; because
I ought to see about it in the next few days. Now I'll tell you what I'll
do--I'll sell you that land to-night at the lower figure."

The agent pondered.

"No, sir," he said, irresolutely. "I'd only make a few dollars an acre on
the deal, and I can get ten per cent. on my money right in this hotel."

"You'd have to wait a year for it, wouldn't you? What price will give you
ten per cent. profit on this quarter-section? You want to remember that
you may get it in a few weeks, and you'd have first-class security."

After making a rough calculation in his notebook, the agent looked up.

"As a rule, I prefer to buy for other people, but I can't go back on what
I said about land being in strong demand, and I'll make you a bid. This
is the most I can do."

Wandle, after trying to raise the price, made a sign of acquiescence.

"We'll let it go at that. I'll get things fixed up as soon as the
land-office is open in the morning."

He left the hotel, satisfied on the whole, though he had sacrificed a
dollar or two an acre and there was an element of danger in what he had
done. The sale of the land must be registered, and the date would be two
or three days after the one on which Jernyngham was killed. The latter's
homestead was, however, a long distance off, there was only one small
weekly newspaper published in the district, and it was very probable that
the agent would not hear of the affair until some time had elapsed, and
then might not attach any importance to the fact that the victim's name
was that of his customer. Even if he did so, the small discrepancy in the
dates would, no doubt, escape his attention. Wandle did not think he had
much cause for uneasiness.

Reaching home the next day, he raked out his stove and found the
cash-box. It had not fallen to pieces as he had expected, and he doubled
it up again with the ax before he flung it into the ash pail. Then he
lighted the stove and set about getting supper, for it was late in the
evening. After finishing the meal, he threw some fragments of potatoes
and a rind of pork into the pail and took it up to carry it to the refuse
heap, but stopped with a start when he left the house. It was getting
dark, but two shadowy figures were riding up the trail and by the way
they sat their horses he recognized them as police troopers. Putting down
the pail, he waited until they dismounted near-by.

"You're too late for supper, Curtis," he said coolly. "I've just cleaned
it up."

The corporal glanced at the pail and in the dim light noticed only the
domestic refuse.

"I've had some," he answered. "I want a few minutes' talk." Then he
motioned to his companion. "Hitch the horses, Stanton, and come in when
you're ready."

They entered the house, followed presently by the trooper, and Wandle
lighted his pipe. He felt more at ease with it in his hand and he
suspected that he would need all his collectedness.

"Well," he said, "what's the trouble?"

"I suppose you know that Jernyngham's missing?"

"I heard that he was killed."

"Looks like it," said Curtis. "You know the muskeg where the creek
spreads out, about fourteen miles north?"

"I don't; never been up so far."

Curtis noticed the prompt disclaimer.

"Anyway, Jernyngham rode there and was knocked out with something heavy
that must have left him stunned, if it didn't make an end of him. He
didn't ride away after it, though his horse went on. The point is that it
was led."

"How do you know that?" Wandle asked.

"It's my business to know these things. Think we can't tell the
difference between the tracks of a led horse and a ridden one? The only
times two horses trot close together at an even distance is when one's
rider has both bridles, or when they're yoked to a wagon pole. However,
I've come to ask if you can throw any light on the matter? You and
Jernyngham were partners, in a way, weren't you?"

"That's so. Now and then we bought implements and horses, or hired a
tractor plow, between us. As a matter of fact, Jernyngham owed me about
five hundred dollars. Anyhow, I'm as puzzled about the thing as you must
be."

"Then you think we're puzzled?" Curtis said in a significant tone.

Wandle laughed.

"It struck me as likely. You know there's not a rancher in the district
who would hurt the man. He was easy to get on with."

"Did you know that he borrowed money on his holding and took it with him
the night he disappeared?"

"I didn't," said Wandle, starting. "I'm not pleased to hear it now. I've
a claim on the place and there are some pretty big storekeepers' bills to
come in."

Curtis asked a few more questions before he took his leave. He passed
near the ash pail as he went out and Stanton touched it with his foot,
but they had mounted and reached the trail before either of them spoke.

"Well?" said Curtis.

Stanton smiled.

"Nothing much to be learned from him; the fellow's about as sly and hard
to get at as a coyote."

"A sure thing," Curtis agreed. "We'll keep an eye on him; I've a
suspicion he knows something."

Then they trotted away in the moonlight, for it was a long ride to their
camp beside the muskeg, which with the assistance of several men they
were engaged in searching.

On the next afternoon, Prescott was at work in the summer fallow, sitting
in the iron saddle of a gangplow, which four powerful horses hauled
through the crackling stubble. It was fiercely hot and he was lightly
clad in thin yellow shirt and overalls. A cloud of dust rose about him
from the parched soil, and the broad expanse of wheat which the fallow
divided glowed with varied colors as it rippled before the rush of
breeze, the strong greens changing to a silvery luster as the lush blades
bent and caught the light. Farther on, there were faint streaks of yellow
among the oats; the great stretch of grass was white and delicate gray,
the rows of clods behind the plow rich chocolate-brown.

Prescott, however, paid little attention to his surroundings. He was
perhaps the only man in the district who had known Jernyngham intimately;
he felt troubled about his disappearance, and he had had a disturbing
interview with Wandle during the morning. The Austrian had contested his
right to manage the farm, declaring that Jernyngham owed him money and
had made certain plans for the joint working of their land which must be
carried out. This did not so much matter, in a sense, if one could take
Jernyngham's death for granted; but Prescott could not do so and had,
moreover, no intention of letting his property fall into the hands of a
cunning, grasping fellow, who, he was fully persuaded, had no real right
to it. If Jernyngham did not turn up, Prescott meant to discharge all his
debts after harvest and, as the crop promised well, to send the balance
to England as a proof that his friend had not been a failure in Canada.
This might be some comfort to Jernyngham's people.

He was considering the matter when he heard the stubble crackle behind
him and, looking around, saw Curtis riding up. Stopping his team, he
waited until the corporal drew bridle.

"Have you found him yet?" he asked.

"We have not," said Curtis. "It's a big muskeg and quite deep. You know
the place?"

"Oh, yes, I know it pretty well."

Curtis looked at him sharply, but Prescott seemed to be musing.

"It's a sad thing when you think of it," he said after a few moments.
"From the little he told me, the man had hard luck all through; and that
Mrs. Jernyngham should leave him just after he'd sacrificed his future
for her must have been a knock-out blow. Yet I've an idea that instead of
crushing it braced him. It pulled him up; he showed signs of turning into
a different man."

"You knew him better than I did," Curtis replied. "I heard at the hotel
he'd asked you to look after his place, given you a share in the crop."

"He did. I'd some words with Wandle about the matter this morning;
Jernyngham warned me he might pretend he had a claim. However, that's not
to the purpose; somehow I feel convinced he'll turn up again. What motive
could any one have for killing him? The only man we might have
suspected--the fellow who went off with Ellice--must have been on the
train bound for St. Paul."

"He was; we wired the conductor. But the thing's quite simple--the motive
was robbery. You remember that wad of bills?" The corporal paused before
he added: "Where did you last see Jernyngham?"

"At the trail-forks near my place. He rode right on; I took the turning."

"Did you see your man, Svendsen, or his wife when you got home?"

"I didn't; they live at the back of the house. I put up the horses,
slipped in quietly, and went to bed."

"Then you can't fix the time you got back?"

Prescott moved sharply, lifting his head, while an angry color suffused
his face.

"Curtis, you can't think--Jernyngham was my best friend!" Then he laughed
indignantly. "You always struck me as a sensible man."

The corporal regarded him with scrutinizing eyes, his manner stamped with
official austerity.

"I'm forming no opinions--yet. It's my duty to find out all I can about
the matter and report. If there's anything you're open to tell me, I'll
make a note of it."

Prescott's face grew stern and his glance very steady.

"I can add nothing to what I've said, and I'm busy."

Curtis rode away, but when he was out of the rancher's sight he broke
into a dry smile. He was an astute young man and knew his business, which
was merely to investigate and follow the instruction of his chiefs at
Regina. Unembroidered facts were what they required in the first
instance, but later he might be permitted to theorize.

When the corporal had gone, Prescott went on with his plowing, but the
crackle of the stubble and the thud of the heavy Clydesdales' hoofs fell
unheeded on his ears, and it was half-consciously that he turned his team
at the head-land. He had a good deal to think about and his thoughts were
far from pleasant. To begin with, the memory of Muriel Hurst had haunted
him since she left; he recalled her with a regretful longing that seemed
to grow steadily stronger instead of diminishing. He thought she had left
an indelible mark on his life. Then there was his impersonation of
Jernyngham, which he had rashly agreed to, but did not now regret. If
Colston had met Cyril on the night of the riot and had gone to his untidy
dwelling, he would have been forced to send home an adverse report.
Prescott was glad to think he had saved his friend from a farther fall in
his English relatives' esteem, though, knowing a little of the man's
story, he held them largely responsible for his reckless career. Their
censoriousness and suspicion had, no doubt, driven him into wilder
rashness.

Besides all this, the corporal's manner rankled in his mind. He knew
Curtis well and had a good opinion of his ability. It seemed preposterous
that such a man could imagine that he had had any hand in Jernyngham's
death. Yet the corporal's tone had been significant and the facts had an
ugly look. He had seen Jernyngham secrete his money and had afterward
ridden on with him, unaccompanied by anybody else. He could not prove
when he returned to his farm, and it might be said that he stood to
benefit by securing the management of Jernyngham's property.

When he reached the end of the furrows his face was grim, but he steadily
continued his plowing.



CHAPTER VII

THE SEARCH


Prescott dismounted and turned loose his horse, short-hobbled, near the
muskeg about two o'clock one hot afternoon. He had begun work at four
that morning, and, with harvest drawing near, time was precious to him,
but he was filled with a keen curiosity to see what progress Curtis had
made in his search. He had a strong personal interest in the matter,
because it seemed that some suspicion might rest on him; though he was
far from sharing the corporal's conviction that Jernyngham was dead.
Stopping at the edge of the ravine, he looked about, taking in the
details of the scene.

Though the prairie had lost its greenness and the flowers had died, it
stretched away, flooded with dazzling light, a great expanse of silvery
gray, flecked with faint lemon and brown. In the swampy hollow, however,
the grass grew tall and green among the shining pools, and Prescott
noticed to his astonishment a dozen men working assiduously lower down.
They had discarded most of their clothing, their brown arms were bare,
and the stiff, dark-colored soil they flung up with their shovels
cumbered the bank of the ravine, which had narrowed in again. Prescott
saw that they were cutting a deeper channel for the creek, with the
object of draining the swamp.

Moving farther along the bank, he came upon the two policemen, who looked
very hot and somewhat muddy, which, as they were usually fastidiously
neat, was noticeable. He felt some hesitation in accosting them, as he
recalled the corporal's attitude when they last met, but he was curious.

"I suppose you have found nothing?" he said, and when Curtis made a sign
of negation continued: "How did you get so many of the boys here?"

Putting his hand in his pocket, the policeman gave him a printed circular
which announced that a reward of one thousand dollars would be paid for
the discovery of Cyril Jernyngham's remains.

"His people in the old country cabled it over," he explained.

"Well," Prescott said thoughtfully, "I don't believe he's here; but he
was a friend of mine, and I'm as anxious to have the question answered as
you are."

Private Stanton, who was sitting in the grass, looked up with a rather
significant smile. Indeed, there was a certain reserve in the manner of
both men which exasperated the rancher.

"It's quite likely you'll have to wait," Curtis rejoined. "Even when
we've run the water out, it may take a long while to search the mushy
stuff it will leave, and if we're beaten here, we'll have to try the
bluffs." He looked hard at Prescott. "We don't let up until we find him."

"Tell me where I can get a shovel and I'll help the boys."

Stanton brought him one and for the next two hours he worked savagely,
standing knee-deep in water in a trench, hacking out clods of the "gumbo"
soil, which covers much of the prairie and grows the finest wheat. When
dry it sets like stone, when wet it assumes a glutinous stickiness which
makes it exceptionally difficult to deal with. Fierce sunshine poured
down on Prescott's bent head and shoulders, his hands grew sore, and mire
and water splashed upon him, but he was hard and leanly muscular and,
driven as he was by a keen desire to test the corporal's theory, he would
have toiled on until the next morning, had it been needful. At length,
however, there was a warning cry from one of the men nearer the swamp.

"Watch out! Let her go!"

Prescott leaped from the trench. There was a roar higher up the ravine,
and a turgid flood, streaked with frothy lines, came pouring down the new
channel, bearing with it small nut bushes and great clumps of matted
grass. By degrees it subsided, and the men, gathering about the edge of
the muskeg, hot and splashed with mire, lay down to smoke and wait, while
the pools that still remained grew smaller. They had been working hard
since early morning and they did not talk much, but Prescott, sitting a
little away from them, was conscious of an unpleasant tension. It was
possible that the search might prove Curtis right. The corporal stood
higher up the bank, scanning each clump of grass and reeds with keenly
scrutinizing eyes. At length, however, he approached the others.

"I guess you've made a job, boys," he told them. "The soft spots ought to
dry out in about a week, but we can't wait till then. You want to
remember there's a thousand dollars for the man who finds him."

They glanced at the morass hesitatingly. It did not look inviting. In
places the reeds grew as high as their heads, and one could not tell what
depths they hid. In other spots there were tracks of slimy ooze in which
one might sink a long way. None of them, however, was fastidious, and
they waded out into the mire, shouting warnings to one another,
disappearing now and then among the grass. The search was partially
rewarded, for while Prescott and a companion were skirting a clump of
reeds they saw part of a soaked garment protruding from the slime. For a
few moments they stood looking at it irresolutely; and then Prescott,
mustering his courage, advanced and seized the stained material. It came
away more readily than he had expected, and he turned to his companion,
conscious of keen relief, with a brown overall jacket in his hand. A
further examination, shrinkingly made, revealed nothing else, and after
marking the place they waded to the bank. The garment was carefully
washed in the creek and the men gathered in a ring round Curtis when he
inspected it.

"Have any of you seen this thing before?" he asked, holding it up.

None of them would identify it. Thin duck overalls are commonly worn by
ranchers and working people, in place of heavier clothing, during the hot
weather. Then Curtis turned to Prescott.

"What's your idea?"

"It isn't Jernyngham's," the rancher said decidedly. "It's too old, for
one thing; looks as if it had been in the water quite a while."

"Hard to tell," commented Curtis. "But go on."

Prescott took the jacket and held it so that the others could see the
inside of the collar.

"No maker's tag," he continued. "Now Cyril always bought the kind they
give you a doll with."

One of the others laughed and supplied the name of the manufacturer,
which was attached to every garment.

"I've seen three or four of those dolls and golliwog things in his
house," the man added. "Used to guy him about keeping them, as he had no
kids."

"We can fix the thing by inquiring at the dry goods store," Curtis
rejoined.

"Can't see whose it was, if it wasn't Jernyngham's," another broke in.
"There's no homestead anywhere near the creek and mighty few people come
up here!"

The policeman took from his pocket a wet envelope, upon which the blurred
writing was still legible.

"Well," he said coolly, "there's no doubt about whose this is." He handed
it to Prescott. "Ever see it in Jernyngham's possession?"

"Yes," answered Prescott with some hesitation. "I recognize the address,
though the English stamp has gone. It was lying near when he was talking
to me on the night of the trouble in Sebastian."

He was filled with uneasiness. The police would certainly attempt to read
the letter, which was the one Colston had written announcing his arrival.
If they succeeded, they would no doubt wonder why the Englishman had not
stayed with Jernyngham, and investigation might lead to a discovery of
the part Prescott had played.

"We've begun quite satisfactorily," said the corporal, "and there's
nothing more to be done to-night. I guess you can quit and have supper,
boys."

In a little while trails of gray smoke floated across the ravine, and
after a meal with one of his neighbors Prescott rode back to his
homestead, feeling much disturbed. For all that, and in spite of the
letter, he did not think Jernyngham would be found in the swamp.

On the following evening a commissioned officer of the police, who had
made the journey from headquarters at Regina and spent an hour or two
examining the scene of the supposititious tragedy, sat with Curtis in a
very hot private room of the hotel at Sebastian. Its raw board walls gave
out a resinous smell; the opening in the window was filled with
mosquito-netting, so that little air crept in. On the table lay a
carefully made diagram; a boot, and one or two paper patterns
representing footprints were on the floor. The officer's hair was turning
gray and he had a quiet brown face with a look of command in it.

"Taking it for granted that your theory's right, suspicion seems to fall
on the men you mentioned," he said. "Whom do you suspect?"

Curtis considered. He was reluctant to express a decided opinion in the
presence of his superior, who was famous for his acumen.

"So far as we have any evidence, I think it points to Prescott," he
responded. "He saw Jernyngham hide his money; he went on alone with him,
and can't prove when he got home. Then several of the footprints marked
on the plan might have been made by him."

The officer took up the boot and one of the paper patterns.

"There's a doubt. I suppose he knows you have his boot?"

The corporal's eyes twinkled faintly.

"I guess he'll miss it sometime."

"It's possible. But what else have you against him?"

"Prescott stands to profit by Jernyngham's death: he has control of the
holding until the year's up, and it's a pretty good crop. He declares the
jacket isn't Jernyngham's; he won't allow the man can be in the muskeg. A
day or two after Jernyngham disappeared he bought one of the new
wide-swath binders. Paid the money down in new bills, which was what
Jernyngham had, though the implement agent didn't note the numbers."

"Pretty strong points. What's your private opinion? Out with it."

The man's tone was commanding and Curtis complied.

"On the whole, I'm inclined to blame the other fellow, Wandle."

"Against the evidence?" asked his superior in quiet surprise. "You of
course remember your instructions and know what your duty is."

"Yes, sir," said Curtis. "Still, I think----" He paused and continued
diffidently: "You would have an answer."

The other leaned back in his chair with a meditative expression.

"We'll let it go at that," he said. "Perhaps you had better follow the
waiting course you seem to have decided on, but if suspicion gathers
round Prescott it won't be a drawback and you needn't discountenance it.
For one thing, it may divert attention, and after all he may be the right
man."

A look of comprehension shone in the corporal's eyes. He believed that
his superior, who never expressed a strong opinion prematurely, agreed
with him.

"Suppose either of the men lights out?" he suggested.

"You'll have to guard against it. If it happens, apply for a warrant and
follow him."

The officer returned to Regina the next day; and a week or two, during
which Curtis and his assistants laboriously searched the drying swamp,
passed uneventfully. Then one morning Prescott sat somewhat moodily in
the saddle of his binder which a powerful team hauled along the edge of
the wheat. The great stretch of grain blazed with color as it swayed with
a harsh rustle of warm-tinted ears before the breeze, but now and then
broad cool shadows sped across it as the white-edged clouds drove by.
Behind him followed two more teams and machines, half covered by falling
sheets of yellow grain, while their whirling wooden arms flashed in the
dazzling sunlight as they flung out the sheaves. Bare-armed and very
scantily attired men came after them, piling the stocks together.
Disturbed as he was, Prescott felt cheered by the prospect of harvesting
a record crop.

He had turned a corner and was proceeding along another side of the great
oblong when he noticed a wagon approaching, carrying two strangers and
several large trunks. As their dress differed from that usually worn on
the prairie, he wondered who they were and why they were driving toward
his ranch. The liveryman, who held the reins, presently pulled up his
team and Prescott; stopping his binder, waited to be addressed. An old
soft hat fell shapelessly forward over his deeply bronzed face, his neck
and most of his arms were uncovered. Before him the four powerful horses
stood fidgeting in the heat, a black cloud of flies about their heads.
Though not a man of striking appearance, he was in harmony with his
surroundings, and formed a fine central figure in the great harvest
field: a worthy type of the new nation that is rising in the West.

For a moment or two the strangers studied him carefully from the wagon.
The one nearest him was a woman of thirty, he thought, of tall and
chastely lined figure, with a colorless and rather expressionless face,
though her features were excellent. She wore a tight-fitting dark dress
which seemed to have been made all in one piece, and gave an impression
of prim coldness and careful restraint. The man in the soft hat was
obviously her father. He had gray hair; his face, which was finely
chiseled, suggested a formal, decided, and perhaps domineering,
character; his gray tweed traveling suit was immaculately neat. There was
no doubt that they were English, and Prescott wondered whom they reminded
him of, until the truth flashed upon him with a disconcerting shock--they
were Jernyngham's father and sister!

"Mr. Prescott?" inquired the man.

Prescott bowed, and the teamster, jumping down, handed him two cards.

"I understand that you knew my unfortunate son," the newcomer continued.

"I did," Prescott replied guardedly.

"Then can I have a word or two with you in private?"

Getting down from the binder, Prescott helped the other to alight from
the high wagon; the man was not agile, though he carried himself well.
They walked back some distance along the edge of the wheat. Then the
rancher stopped and from force of habit felt for his pipe.

"I must be to some extent confidential," began Jernyngham. "You must
guess why I came."

The strong light fell searchingly on his face, revealing lines on it
which Prescott thought had lately been deepened by pain, but his eyes
were very keen and hard.

"I suppose the recent calamity brought you," the rancher ventured.

"Yes; I have come to see justice done. But we will not discuss that yet.
We arrived yesterday evening and found it was impossible that my daughter
should be comfortable at the hotel; besides which, it is rather too far
away. I accordingly determined to look for quarters at one of the
ranches, but succeeded in getting shelter for only the one night."

Prescott felt amused. Jernyngham and his daughter were not the kind of
people the somewhat primitive prairie ranchers would welcome; their
request for accommodation was more likely to cause astonishment and
alarm.

"People are very busy, now that harvest's coming on, and they've extra
hands to cook for," he explained.

"I understand," continued Jernyngham, "that my son's homestead is in this
neighborhood, and domestics might be hired; but after what has happened,
I fear my daughter would find living there a painful strain. That was why
I thought of applying to you."

The announcement filled Prescott with dismay. The presence of the
Jernynghams might involve him in further complications.

"I'm sorry, but we live very simply," he said hastily. "My place is only
half furnished; we have no time to make it comfortable--and I'm sure
you'd find our cooking barbarous. I'm afraid Miss Jernyngham couldn't put
up with the accommodation we could offer her."

"We only want quietness, fresh air, and a little privacy, none of which
seems to be obtainable at Sebastian. While the question of terms is no
consideration, I recognize that I must make my appeal to your
generosity."

Prescott did not answer, and Jernyngham resumed in a more urgent tone:

"I must beg you not to make difficulties; I'm told there is nobody else
in the neighborhood who could take us in. We will require very little
attention and will promise to give you no trouble."

Prescott wavered. The man was keenly anxious; it was hard to resist his
appeal, and there was, after all, only a small risk that he might hear of
Colston's visit. Svendsen and his wife, who attended to the housekeeping,
were Scandinavians, and could scarcely converse in English. When they
addressed him by any distinguishing epithet it was always as "Boss."

"Well," he said doubtfully, "I can't refuse you shelter. You can stay for
a while, anyway, until we see how we get on. I'll go up to the homestead
with you."

He had an interview with his housekeeper, who protested in broken English
that harvest was a singularly inconvenient time to entertain strangers,
but eventually gave away. The extra hands lately hired could be put up in
the barn, and there were two rooms that could be spared. Prescott showed
his visitors in and afterward watched with some amusement their surprise
when they sat down to the midday meal with the lightly clad toilers from
the field. During the afternoon and until late in the evening, he worked
hard among the grain, but when the light was failing and he leaned on a
wire fence, hot and tired after the long day of effort, Jernyngham came
toward him.

"We have had very little talk so far," he said. "My daughter, however,
desires me to convey her thanks to you. She believes she will be
perfectly comfortable."

He was irritatingly formal, his tone was precise, but it changed as he
added:

"So you knew Cyril!"

"Yes," Prescott said gravely. "I was fond of him."

Jernyngham seemed to be struggling with some stirring of his deeper
nature beneath the crust of mannerisms.

"Mr. Prescott," he said, "I may tell you that I now fear I treated the
lad injudiciously, and perhaps with needless harshness. I looked upon
extravagance and eccentricity as signs of depravity. It was a vast relief
when I heard from Colston, whom you may have met; that Cyril had
prospered and was leading an exemplary life in Canada."

The blood crept into Prescott's face, and Jernyngham glanced at him
curiously before he proceeded.

"We were somewhat hurt that he would not come home; but after past
mistakes I could not urge him, and it seemed possible that he might
change his mind later. Then the dreadful blow fell--crushing and filling
me with all the bitterness of useless regret. I had spoken too late; the
opportunity I would not use in time had gone."

He broke off, and his face had grown white and stern when he went on
again:

"There is only one thing I can do, but if needful, I will devote the rest
of my life to it--that is, to track down the man who killed my son!"

He was silent for the next few minutes, and then, after a few words on
indifferent subjects, intended, Prescott thought, to cover his display of
feeling, he turned away, leaving the rancher smoking thoughtfully.



CHAPTER VIII

A DAY ON THE PRAIRIE


A week after Jernyngham's arrival at the homestead he sat among the
sheaves in the harvest field late one afternoon studying a letter which
the mail-carrier had just brought him. His daughter, sheltered from the
strong sunlight by the tall stocked sheaves, was reading an elegantly
bound book of philosophy. Gertrude Jernyngham had strict rules of life
and spent an hour or two of every day in improving her mind, without, so
far as her friends had discovered, any enlargement of her outlook. Among
her numerous virtues was an affectionate solicitude about her father's
health, which was variable. Though still muscularly vigorous, Jernyngham
was getting an old man, and he had been out of sorts of late.

"I'm glad you are looking much better than you did this morning," she
said, glancing at him after a while.

"Thank you," Jernyngham rejoined punctiliously. "I suppose it was the
strain of the past few weeks that tried me, and perhaps I have been doing
too much, traveling backward and forward between here and the muskeg."
Then with an effort he banished his painful thoughts and smiled. "I
wonder how many years it is since I spent an afternoon in a harvest
field! I'll confess that I find much to interest me."

Gertrude laid down her book and glanced about. She was of a practical
disposition and almost devoid of artistic susceptibilities, but the
richness and color of the scene impressed her. Far away in front ran the
long ranks of sheaves, gleaming in the sunshine amid the golden stubble
which was flecked by their deep-blue shadows. The air was cooling, but
the light was brilliant and the standing wheat was picked out with tints
of burnished copper. By comparison with it, the oat stocks shone pale and
silvery. Round the edge of the grain moved the binders, clashing and
tinkling musically, while their whirling arms flashed in the sunlight.

Prescott, lightly clad, drove the foremost machine. The fine modeling of
his lean, muscular figure was effectively displayed; his uncovered arms
and face were the color of the soil. Seated behind the big horses, he
looked wonderfully virile. The man seemed filled with primitive vigor; he
was a type that was new to Gertrude Jernyngham.

"Our host," remarked her father, "strikes one as tireless; though I'm
inclined to think that during harvest everybody here works at a higher
tension than would be borne at home. Their methods are rather
wasteful--this tall stubble, for instance, continuous cereal crops,
except for the short summer fallow--but they're no doubt adapted to the
needs of the country. Having some experience in these matters, I should
say this farm was excellently managed."

In place of answering, Gertrude watched the rancher. The physical
perfection of the man had an effect on her, though she was essentially
prudish.

"I ought to drive in to the settlement and send off a cablegram, though I
expect it will be difficult to get a team," Jernyngham resumed, returning
to his letter. "Cranford wants instructions about a matter of importance
that has cropped up since we left."

"It wouldn't be wise for you to drive so far," Gertrude said firmly. "I
might go instead; we'll speak to Mr. Prescott about it this evening."

Shortly afterward there was a harsh clanking sound and Prescott, pulling
up his team, sprang down from the binder. He became busy with hammer and
spanner, and in a few minutes the stubble was strewn with pinion wheels,
little shafts, and driving-chains. Then, while his guests watched him
with growing interest, he put the machine together, started his team and
stopped it, and again dismembered the complicated gear. This, as Gertrude
realized, was work that needed a certain amount of skill. Finally, when
the overtaking binders had stopped near-by, he took out a small shaft and
held it up so that the harvesters could see it.

"Journal's bent; I'll have to go get a new piece," he said. "Go ahead
with your teams."

After that he unhitched his horses and was leading them past the place
where the Jernynghams sat, when Gertrude spoke to him.

"I'm sorry you had an accident, and I suppose you will have to send the
broken part to Sebastian. May I go with the team?"

"Why, of course," he said. "I'll drive you in to-morrow. As it's a pretty
long way, I'll try to borrow a comfortable rig."

He went on with the horses and she saw no more of him that day, but early
the next morning he brought up a light, four-wheeled vehicle, which would
carry two people and had a hood that could be drawn up. Gertrude thought
it a great improvement on the prairie wagon, and she admired the restive
team which he had some trouble in holding. When she got in, he sprang to
the seat beside her, the horses bounded forward, and they sped out
through a gap in the fence, the vehicle lurching wildly among the ruts.

For a while Gertrude was occupied, to the exclusion of everything else,
in trying to keep her place, but when Prescott turned the team on to a
stretch of smooth short grass she began to look about. It was a clear,
cool morning, the sky was a wonderful blue, and bluffs miles away showed
up with sharp distinctness. In the foreground the gray grass was bathed
in a soft light which was restful to the eyes. Then Gertrude examined the
rig, as the man had called it, which struck her as remarkably light and
fragile; and the same thing was noticeable about the harness. The horses
moved as if they were drawing no load, swinging along at a fast and
springy trot, while the vehicle ran lightly up and down the slight
undulations, the wheels jarring now and then into a hollow or smashing
through dwarf scrub. The pace was exhilarating, the fine air invigorated
the girl, and her usual prim reserve melted away.

"I am fortunate in getting in to Sebastian," she said. "There's a
cablegram it's necessary that my father should send."

"Glad to take you," Prescott rejoined. "Is Mr. Jernyngham in business?"

"Oh, no; not as you would understand it. We spend most of our time in the
country, where he manages the estate. It's small, but there are two
quarries which need looking after. Then he's director of a company. He
doesn't believe that a man should be idle."

Prescott smiled. He had read a good deal about England, and he could
imagine Jernyngham's firm control of his property. His rule would, no
doubt, be just, but it would be enforced on autocratic and highly
conventional lines. His daughter, the rancher thought, resembled him in
some respects. She was handsome and dignified in a colorless way; she
might have been charming if she were only a trifle less correct in manner
and there were more life in her.

"Well," he said, in answer to her last remark, "that's a notion you'll
find lived up to here. The man who won't work mighty hard very soon goes
broke. It's a truth you in the old country ought to impress on the men
you're sending out to us."

She liked his easy phraseology; which she supposed was western, and there
was nothing harsh in his intonation. It was that of a well-educated man,
and the Jernynghams were exacting in such matters.

"I think there must be something in the air which makes toil less
arduous," she said. "The people I've met have a cheerful, optimistic
look." She hesitated, and added in a confidential tone: "I like to
imagine that my brother wore the same expression, though he was always
carelessly gay. He seems to have made a capable rancher. It was a great
relief to us when we were told of it."

Prescott grew hot and embarrassed, but he thought he could understand how
Cyril Jernyngham had entered on a course of recklessness. It was a
reaction against the overwhelming propriety of his father and sister.

"I don't think you need grieve for your brother yet," he said gravely.
"Although nobody here seems to agree with me, I find it impossible to
believe that he is dead."

Gertrude gave him a grateful look.

"I'm glad to hear you say so--there is at least a doubt, and that is
comforting; though I'm afraid my father can't be made to realize it."

"Can't you persuade him not to take too much for granted?"

"I wish I could." Gertrude's tone was sad. "He has been brooding over the
dreadful news ever since it reached us. It has possessed him absolutely;
he can think of nothing else, and there will be no relief for him until
he finds the guilty person, or it is proved beyond all doubt that the
police are mistaken." She paused before she went on. "If they're right, I
think I should feel as merciless as he does. Cyril was my only brother; I
was very fond of him."

Her voice trembled a little, though her eyes were hard, and Prescott felt
sorry for her. She was not of emotional nature; he could imagine her
shrinking from any display of tenderness. Nevertheless, it was obvious
that she was a prey to fear and grief.

"So was I," he said. "I wonder if I may point out that he struck me as
being different from you and your father?"

"I think I know what you mean. Cyril was like my mother--she died a long
while ago, but I remember her as gentle, sympathetic, and perhaps more
variable than I am. Cyril was swayed by feeling rather than by judgment."

Prescott knew this was correct, but he found his companion an interesting
study. She was wrapped up in cold propriety; she must have led an
uneventful life, looked up to and obeyed by the small community that
owned her father's rule. Romance could not have touched her; she was not
imaginative; but he thought there were warmth and passion lying dormant
somewhere in her nature. She could not have wholly escaped the
consequences of being Cyril Jernyngham's sister.

Nothing further was said for a while, and presently the team toiled
through a belt of sandy ridges, furrowed by the wind, where the summits
were crested here and there by small jack-pines. Looking up as they
crossed one elevation, Gertrude noticed a wedge of small dark bodies
outlined against the soft blue sky.

"What are those?" she asked.

"Wild geese; the forerunners of the host that will soon come down from
the marshes by the Polar Sea."

"But do they go so far?"

He laughed.

"They cross this continent twice a year; up from the steaming lagoons on
the Gulf to the frozen muskegs of the North, and back again. They're
filled with a grand unrest and wholly free; travelers of the high air,
always going somewhere."

"Ah!" responded Gertrude. "To be always doing something is good. But the
other--the ceaseless wandering----"

"Going on and on, beating a passage through the icy winds, rejoicing in
the sun, seeking for adventure. Is there no charm in that?"

She looked at him uneasily, as if his words had awakened some
half-understood response.

"I think Cyril must have felt something of the kind. So far it has never
stirred me. Isn't it wise to hold fast by what is safe and familiar?"

"Oh, I don't know," Prescott answered with a smile. "I follow the course
you mention, because I have to. It's my business to drive the plow, and
the hazard of having a crop hailed out is adventure enough. But I don't
think it should make one hard on the people who prefer the other thing.
After all, they may be right; the life they take pleasure in may be the
best for them, though it wouldn't appeal to you or me."

"I'm not sure that toleration should be encouraged. It often means
indifference, perhaps a lack of principle."

She grasped tightly the rail around the seat, for the horses plunged down
a sandy slope at a wild gallop, passing at the bottom a horse and buggy
in which sat a man dressed in a dark gray suit, to whom Prescott waved
his hand.

"Is he a clergyman?" asked Gertrude.

"Well," Prescott smiled, "he's a Presbyterian minister. I suppose you
think there's a difference?"

His companion with unusual forbearance let this pass.

"Then you have churches at Sebastian?"

"Four. I can't say they're crowded; but, while we're liberal-minded on
many points, the flocks won't mix. Strikes me as a pity."

"It is a pity; there should be only one strong and united church in every
place."

"And that the right one?" Prescott's eyes twinkled mischievously. "You're
thinking of the one we call Episcopalian?"

"Yes," said Gertrude severely; "the Church."

"I'll admit that I'm on pretty good terms with the lot, but Father
Dillon's my favorite. For one thing, he's a practical farmer as well as a
fine classical scholar. His crowd, for the most part, are hard-up
foreigners; and he shows them how to build decent homes and put their
crops in. All the same, I've quite a high opinion of the Methodist and
the Presbyterian, who are at the opposite end of the scale."

Gertrude showed signs of disapproval.

"In these matters, broad-mindedness may be dangerous. One can't
compromise."

"Well," he said, "even the Roman Curia tried it before the council of
Trent, and your people made an attempt to conciliate the English
Calvinists about Elizabeth's time; you were inclined to Genevan
Protestantism once or twice afterward."

His companion's surprise was evident, and he laughed as he read her
thoughts.

"Oh," he explained, "I used to take some interest in these matters once
upon a time. You see, I was at McGill."

"McGill? I seem to have heard the name, but what does it stand for?"

Prescott looked amused.

"I don't know that it quite means what Oxford does to you, but it's
something of the kind; you might have seen the fine buildings at the foot
of the mountain, if you had stayed in Montreal. Then we have Toronto;
with deference to the Toronto men, I'll compare that to Cambridge. Still,
so far as I understand your English ideas, there's a difference--our boys
go to McGill or Toronto with the intention of learning something that
will open up a career. They certainly play football and one or two other
games pretty well, but that's a very secondary object; so's the acquiring
of a polished style. In fact, it's not altogether unusual on this side of
the Atlantic to find university men spending a vacation as waiters in the
summer hotels."

"But why do they do that?" Gertrude asked with a shocked expression.

"For money," Prescott answered dryly. "One gathers that the St. Andrew
boys did something of the same kind in Scotland in your grandfather's
time; and no logical objection could be made to it, anyway. Isn't it a
pretty good test of a man's determination? It's hard to see why he should
make a worse doctor, engineer, or preacher, because he has the grit to
earn his training by carrying plates, or chopping trees, which some of
our boys take to."

This was difficult to answer, and Gertrude did not attempt it; her
prejudices were stronger than her powers of reasoning. Looking southward,
she saw the turreted tops of the Sebastian elevators rising from the sea
of grass like cathedral towers. Their smallness emphasized the vastness
of the plain, which was beginning to have a stimulating effect on her
mind. She thought it might explain the broadness of her companion's
views, which, while erroneous, were becoming comprehensible. He lived in
the open, beyond the bounds of walls and fences, breathing this wonderful
invigorating air. Nevertheless, he was obviously a man of varied and
extensive information, which struck her as somewhat curious in face of
his severely practical abilities. He could mend harness, plow a straight
furrow, break horses, and strip a complicated machine. As a new type, he
deserved attention.

After a while they struck into a well-beaten track which had been graded
where it crossed a muskeg. The rude work, however, had suffered from
frost and rain: the ruts in the hard black soil were deep and there were
dangerous holes. To make matters worse, a big gasoline tractor, intended
to assist in some harvesting operations, had got into difficulties near
the middle of the graded track. It was making an alarming noise and
diffusing a pungent odor, while two men thrust bits of board beneath the
wheels for it to climb out of the hole on. Prescott's team slackened
their pace, jerking their heads and pricking their ears. They were young
range horses that had roamed over wide spaces, and were badly broken.

Getting a tight grip on the reins he turned to his companion.

"We can't get around--the muskeg's too soft. I'd put you down, only that
I may not be able to hold the team after we get past that machine." He
raised his voice. "Can't you stop her, boys?"

"No, sir!" cried a grimy man. "Soon as we cut out the engine she'd run
back into the hole! We've been here two hours already!"

"Hold tight!" Prescott cautioned Gertrude, and urged the horses forward.

As they approached the tractor the noise suddenly increased, and its
wheels spun faster, grinding on the skids. One of the horses reared,
swinging up the pole, which nearly threw its fellow; then there was a
frantic thud of hoofs against the frame of the vehicle, and the team,
swinging half around, threatened to overturn it into the swamp. Prescott
plied the whip; the beasts plunged. One pair of wheels left the road, and
the rig slanted alarmingly. A violent crash and jolt followed; Gertrude
came near to being flung out of her seat; and they passed the tractor and
sped across the graded stretch at a furious pace. Prescott was braced
backward, his feet pressed hard against a bar, his lips tightly set,
while Gertrude, shrinking from the disaster that seemed imminent,
wondered how he swung the panic-stricken beasts clear of the worst holes.
She gasped with relief when they had passed the muskeg, but the trail was
still in a dangerous state, and Prescott turned the team upon the grass,
where they galloped on while the wheels smashed through short scrub,
until at last the speed began to slacken. The horses' coats were foul and
flecked with spume when Gertrude looked backward and saw the tractor far
away in the distance.

"They've had enough," Prescott remarked. "We made the last mile at a
pretty good clip; I kept them at it. Guess they won't start another
circus if we meet a freight locomotive on the switches."

The settlement was reached without further mis-adventure, and Prescott,
as a special favor, secured a separate table at the hotel, where Gertrude
was served with an excellent meal. Afterward he showed her how to
despatch her father's message, and as she turned away the telegraph
operator grinned at Prescott.

"Where are all these high-toned English girls coming from, Jack?" he
said. "You have brought another one this time."

Leaving the man without an answer, Prescott rejoined his companion.

"Are there any English people staying near the settlement?" she asked.

"The fellow was alluding to Miss Hurst."

"Muriel Hurst?" Gertrude exclaimed sharply. "Was she here with you?"

"Yes." Prescott regretted that she had asked for an explanation of the
operator's remarks. "I once drove her in; Cyril's team was doing
something else. But you said you wanted to visit the drygoods store,
didn't you?"

Gertrude accompanied him there and when he left her in the hands of a
lady clerk she fancied that she was favored with somewhat unusual
attention on his account. The man seemed to be a favorite in the
settlement. She spent a tedious afternoon in the hotel parlor while he
went about the business that had brought him in and the team rested. It
was a relief when he reappeared in time for supper; and after that they
set out again. The sun set before they reached the homestead, the air
grew bracingly cool, and the prairie rolled away before them, dim and
mysterious, streaked with shadowy blurs of bluffs until a full moon rose
and flooded it with silvery light. There was strange, deep silence except
for the thud of hoofs which rose and fell in sharp staccato rhythm.

Gertrude was tired when Prescott helped her down at the homestead, but
all her senses were unusually alert. She had enjoyed what she felt had
been an invigorating day, and she admitted that, although she by no means
agreed with all the rancher said, his breezy talk had added to its zest.



CHAPTER IX

PRESCOTT MAKES A PROMISE


The fortnight that followed Gertrude's drive to Sebastian passed
uneventfully, though the minds of three of the occupants of the homestead
were filled with disturbing thoughts. Prescott spent the time working
hard at his harvest, but he wished that something might relieve him of
his guests, whose presence he found embarrassing, since it forced him to
be continually on his guard. In spite of this, he was conscious of strong
sympathy for them and did what he could to ensure their comfort. He was
getting uneasy, for he saw that Cyril Jernyngham had involved him in a
maze of complications from which there seemed to be no escape. It was
obvious that appearances were against him; the evidence that Curtis had
obtained pointed to his being implicated in the death of his friend, and
the painstaking corporal might discover something more damaging. Prescott
fancied that one or two of his acquaintances who now and then rode across
his farm on different errands returned his greeting with a new and
significant coldness.

Jernyngham spent much of his time at the muskeg, encouraging the men who
searched it and often assisting in the work. The whole morass was being
systematically turned over with the spade, but no further discoveries had
been made. In addition to this, Jernyngham rode to and fro about the
prairie, talking to the farmers whom he met on the trail or found at work
in the fields. They were all sorry for him, but there was something
deterrent in his sternness and his formal English manner, and they were
less communicative than they might have been. This was why he failed to
learn that the Colstons had stayed at Prescott's homestead, though, for
that matter, the fact was not generally known. The man could not rest;
tormented by regrets for his past harshness, he was bent on making the
only amend he could by hunting down the slayer of his son. His whole mind
was fixed on the task, and he brooded over it in a manner that aroused
his daughter's concern. She dreaded the effect a continuance of the
strain might have.

Gertrude, however, was relieved of a more pressing anxiety. Though her
father steadfastly refused to entertain it, she shared Prescott's belief
that her brother was not dead. For one thing, Cyril was not the man to
come badly to grief; he had done many reckless things and somehow escaped
the worst results. Illogical as the idea was, she felt that his luck was
good. It was a comforting reflection and she was sensible of a growing
confidence in the farmer, who encouraged her to cling to it.

One afternoon she left the house and strolled across the harvest fields,
which had greatly changed in appearance since she had first seen them.
The oats were all stooked and stood in silvery sheaves, ready for the
thrasher; the great stretch of wheat had melted down to a narrow oblong,
round which the binders were working. Gertrude stopped to watch them. The
plodding horses, the bent figures of the men, the play of light on
falling grain, and the revolving arms of the machines fixed her eyes; the
rustle of sheaves, the crackle of stubble, and the musical tinkle of
metal, fell pleasantly on her ears. The mornings and evenings were cold
now, but the days were hot and bright, and the scene was steeped in vivid
hues: ocher, lemon, and coppery red below, dazzling blue above.

Prescott drove the leading binder and when it drew nearer she followed
his movements with careful scrutiny. She admitted that the man aroused
her interest. He was wonderfully virile, sanguine, and hopeful, with a
trace of what she thought of as the primitive strain; which tended toward
physical perfection; his vigor and muscular symmetry had their effect on
her. Though her father was a man of means and influence, her circle of
acquaintances had been restricted by the narrowness of his views; and the
men with whom she had been brought into contact were, for the most part,
distinguished rather by unexceptional morals and sound opinions than by
bodily grace and original thought.

By disposition as well as training Gertrude was a formalist and a prude,
but she was human and she unconsciously obeyed a law of nature which
ordains the union of the dissimilar. This was why, having met only men of
her own kind hitherto, she had escaped the touch of passion and now felt
drawn toward one who greatly differed from her.

After a while Prescott stopped his binder and opened a box attached to
it. He closed it sharply, as if annoyed, called to one of the men
gathering up the sheaves, and then walked toward the house.

"Run out of twine; I'll have to get some," he explained to Gertrude.

"You look tired," she said, stopping him. "You have been working very
hard."

"I don't feel quite as bright as usual," he confessed. "It's the heat, I
think, but I've turned out at four o'clock every morning since harvest
began."

"Then why not take a few minutes' rest? I'll make you a cup of tea; I was
going in to get some ready. It's an English custom."

He indicated his attire.

"I'd be glad, but I haven't time to make myself presentable."

"I'll excuse that." Gertrude smiled and added with unusual boldness: "You
don't seem to know that your dress is really most artistic. It suits
you."

He bowed to her.

"I'm flattered. This costume was adopted with a view to economy and
comfort. The worst of a man's wearing smart clothes is that whenever he
wants to do anything useful he has to take them off."

"Is that a great trouble?"

"It takes a lot of valuable time," he answered with a smile.

They turned toward the house, and after getting the twine he joined her
in a cool, shadowy room. Gertrude was watching a silver spirit-lamp; near
which two dainty cups and plates were laid out.

"That's a very pretty outfit," he remarked. "Is it English?"

"No; I bought it at a big store in Winnipeg--on Portage Avenue, I think."

"I know the place. So they're selling this kind of thing there! It's
significant. A few years ago they'd have got nobody to buy such truck."
He picked up a cup and held it to the light after examining the chaste
color, design, and stamp. "Anyway, it's English; the genuine article. I
believe the biscuit can't be imitated."

Gertrude had not expected him to understand artistic china.

"I've read about these things," he explained with a good-humored laugh;
"and I've a way of remembering. We have time in winter, and one is glad
to study anything that comes along. Still, I'll allow that I found
five-cent cans quite good enough when I first came out."

This was not a point of much importance, but it fixed Gertrude's
attention. She was in the habit of roughly sorting people into different
groups; there were, for example, those who appreciated beautiful things
and had been endowed with them as a reward of merit, and those of coarser
nature on whom they would be wasted, which was, no doubt, why they had
none. Yet here was a man with artistic taste, who was nevertheless
engaged in hard manual labor and had drunk contentedly out of common
cans. It did not fit in with her theories.

"I suppose this country has its influence on one?" she said, searching
for an explanation.

"That's so; the influence is strong and good, on the whole."

She considered this, quietly studying him. It was the first time she had
entertained at table a man in outdoor working attire; Prescott, out of
deference to his guests, had made some preparation for the meals they
shared. Still, the simple dress became him; he was, as she vaguely
thought of it, admirable, in a way. His hands and wrists were
well-shaped, though scarred and roughened by the rasp of the hot straw.
The warmth of the sun seemed to cling to his brown face; a joyous
vitality emanated from him, and he had mental gifts. She felt lightly
thrilled by his propinquity.

"But everything out here is still very crude," she said.

"That's where our strength lies; we're a new people, raised on virgin
soil out in the rushing winds. We haven't simmered down yet; we're
charged with unexhausted energies, which show themselves in novel ways.
In our cities you'll find semibarbarous rawness side by side with
splendor and art, and complicated machines run by men who haven't much
regard for the fastidious niceties of civilization, though they're
unexcelled in their engineering skill. We undertake big works in an
unconsidered manner that would scare your cautious English minds, make
wild blunders, and go ahead without counting the damage. We come down
pretty hard often, but it never brings us to a stop."

He saw that she did not grasp all he meant to convey, and he leaned back
in his chair with a laugh.

"This is the kind of fool talk you would expect from a boastful
Westerner, isn't it?"

"No," she replied somewhat formally; "that isn't what I thought. I find
everything I see and hear interesting, but there's much I can't
understand. One has to feel for its meaning."

"It's a very proper attitude," he rejoined with amusement. "So long as
you don't bring over a ready-made standard to measure our shortcomings
by, we'll explain all we can. In fact, it's a thing we're fond of doing."
Then his tone grew grave. "But I haven't seen your father since this
morning. Is he at the muskeg?"

"Yes. I'm getting anxious about him; the trouble is preying on his mind.
Grief, of course, is a natural feeling, but he thinks of nothing except
revenge. He's growing haggard and losing his judgment. I'm almost afraid
to think what may happen if he finds anything that looks like a clue. The
shock has shaken him terribly."

"And you?"

"I feel half guilty because I've been so calm since I came here, but I
can't believe the worst. You have reassured me." She paused and added
softly: "And I'm very grateful."

"I'm glad." Prescott's tone was sympathetic. "But I can imagine what your
father feels. From a few things he has told me, he seems to have led a
smooth, well-ordered life; no doubt he made too much of the trouble your
brother caused him."

"Yes; I think so now."

"Perhaps he half-consciously formed an idea that things would always go
tranquilly with him, and when it came without warning the shock of
Cyril's disappearance was too strong. And yet I firmly believe he's
mistaken in his fears."

Gertrude made a sign of agreement.

"Nothing I can say calms him. One can only wait."

"And that's always hard," Prescott said gently.

She roused him to strong compassion. She had, he thought, no great depth
of character, but her development had been checked by many restraints.
Her father had curbed each natural impulse, until the little originality
in her withered and died; she had grown up cold and colorless, with
narrow views, and petty, if quite blameless, aims. Prescott, however, was
wrong in crediting Jernyngham with too great a success. Gertrude's nature
had not been utterly repressed and stunted, and now, in time of stress,
it was expanding.

Romance had come late to her, but she was dimly conscious of it at last.
Her senses were stirring and she felt a half-guilty pleasure at seeing
the bronzed rancher's eyes bent on her tenderly. To think of him except
as her host for a few weeks was, of course, folly; but there was a
fascination in the gentleness he showed her. She was beginning to
understand and sympathize with Cyril's rash daring and contempt for
restraints. She felt tempted to follow her impulses; her frigid reserve
was melting.

"Will you have more tea?" she asked, shrinking back to safe ground.

"Thank you," he said, holding out the dainty cup.

"Hot water? It's rather strong."

"Before I had a housekeeper we made it black and drank it by the
kettleful."

"But the effect on your nerves!"

"Nerves?" he laughed. "We don't cultivate them in this country. Mine make
no trouble."

"You're to be envied," she said, and looked up sharply at a sound of
footsteps as her father came in.

His clothes were dusty and creased; the neatness which had characterized
him on his arrival had gone. His face had grown brown, but it was
haggard, hotly flushed, and beaded with perspiration; his lips were
tightly set, his eyes had an ominous glitter. Throwing down a riding
quirt he carried, he sat down; resting his arms on the table, in an
attitude of blank dejection.

"Nothing yet," he said listlessly. "It's hard to bear."

"There's a suggestion I want to make." Prescott spoke quietly. "The offer
of a reward here has led to nothing; send another round to the Alberta
and British Columbia papers, with a description of your son, saying
you'll pay a hundred dollars for trustworthy information about him. I
believe it will bring you good news."

Jernyngham turned to him in keen impatience.

"It would be useless--my son is dead! The police have proved that beyond
a doubt, and I cannot understand why you should persist in denying it!"
His eyes grew hard with sudden suspicion. "It looks as if you had some
motive."

"I'm afraid you're hardly just," Gertrude broke in. "Mr. Prescott only
wishes to lessen your anxiety, but he's convinced of what he says."

It was a rare thing for her to oppose him, but Jernyngham was too
preoccupied to be surprised at her boldness, and he made a gesture of
deprecation.

"You must forgive me, Mr. Prescott--my daughter's right. But to offer me
assurances that must prove false is rank cruelty. I have faced the worst;
I'm not strong enough to bear a second blow, which is what must follow if
I listen to you. As it is, the strain is merciless."

His voice and bearing showed it. Indeed, one could have imagined that it
would have been better had he yielded a little more, but his eyes
expressed a grim, vengeful determination. He was not the man to weaken,
he would hold out until he broke down; but his daughter and Prescott were
filled with fears for him.

"I'm sorry," said the rancher. "Has Curtis thought of anything new?"

"No," Jernyngham answered harshly. "The police can entertain only one
idea at a time; they can read the meaning of footprints and there their
ability ends. They have no power of organization; I can't force them to
make investigations on a proper scale, and I'm helpless until harvest's
over. Then, when men can be hired, I'll have every bluff and ravine in
the country searched. If I spend the rest of my life here, I'll find the
guilty man!"

He said nothing further, and there was a strained silence while he sat,
leaning forward limply, with bent head, and a thin hand clenched hard
upon the table. Rousing himself by and by, he took the cup of tea
Gertrude passed to him, and set it down without drinking. It made a sharp
clatter, but he left it setting near him as if he had forgotten it.
Unable to bear the sight of his distress, Prescott went quietly out, and
when he was leaving the house Gertrude joined him.

"Perhaps I should have stayed with him, but I was afraid to speak," she
said. "Besides, there was nothing to be said."

"This can't go on," Prescott declared. "It's too much for him. I can't
leave here until the harvest's over, and then the grain ought to be
hauled in, but I've thought of making a tour of inquiry along the new
railroad and round the Alberta ranches and the mines in British
Columbia."

Gertrude looked grateful.

"It would be a great relief to feel that something was being done. But--"
she added hesitatingly, "your time is valuable and there would be
expense. I have some means, Mr. Prescott, and though I dare not speak to
my father about it, you must draw on me."

"We'll talk about it later. I wish I could go now, but that's impossible,
and there's no use in suggesting that Mr. Jernyngham should send somebody
else. Besides, I believe I'd have the best chance of picking up the right
trail. You won't mind my saying that I'm very sorry for you?"

Her eyes grew soft and her whole expression gentle. It was an attractive
face Prescott looked into.

"I value your sympathy," she said softly. "Indeed, I can't tell you what
a comfort you have been. But you will undertake this search as soon as
possible, won't you?"

"Yes," Prescott replied firmly; "you can count on that. If I've made
things easier for you, I'm very glad."

Then he turned away and hurried back to the binder.



CHAPTER X

A NEW CLUE


It was a clear, cool morning and Prescott was busily engaged throwing
sheaves into his wagon. He had finished his harvest and, in accordance
with western custom, had immediately begun the thrashing. Part of the
great field was already stripped to a belt of tall stubble, though long
ranks of stooks still stretched across the rest, and dusty men were hard
at work among them. Wagons rolled through the crackling straw--going
slowly, piled high with rustling loads; returning light, jolting wildly,
as fast as the teams could trot, for the thrashers were paid by the
bushel and would brook no delay. In the background stood their big
machine, pouring out a cloud of smoke that stretched in a gray trail
across the prairie, and filling the air with its harsh clatter.

It was a scene of strenuous activity, filled with hurriedly moving
figures, but its coloring had lost something of its former vividness. The
blue of the sky was softer, the light less strong; the varying hues of
lemon and copper and ocher had become subdued; the shadows were no longer
darkly blue but a cool restful gray. The rushing winds that had swept the
wide plain all summer had come to rest; the air was sharp and still.

The last week or two, however, had brought no change to the inmates of
the homestead. Jernyngham still brooded over his loss and worried the
police, his daughter looked to her host for comfort, and Prescott did
what he could to cheer her. Gertrude, indeed, was sensible of a rapidly
growing confidence in him and of the abandonment of many long-held ideas.
The man was not of her station: he was a working farmer, his views at
first had jarred on her; and yet the attraction he had for her was
steadily increasing. She made a feeble fight against it. In England she
had stood on safe ground, hedged in by conventions, ruled by the opinions
of a narrow circle of friends. Now all was different; she had lost these
supports and restraints and she was helpless without them. Passion was
beginning to touch her and she mistook the rancher's gentleness and
sympathy.

When Prescott had loaded his wagon she joined him as he led his team
between the ranks of stooks, but while she walked by his side he thought
of another Englishwoman whom he had once brought home with the prairie
hay. He remembered how Muriel Hurst had nestled among the yielding grass,
with something delightful in every line of her figure. He recalled her
bright good-humor, the music of her laugh, the soft tones of her voice,
the hint of courage he had seen in her eyes; and there was pain in the
recollection. Gertrude Jernyngham was powerless to move him as Muriel had
done, but he was sorry for Cyril's sister and very considerate of her.

"We'll have the crop off the ground before long," he said. "Then I'll
start for Alberta, as I promised."

"You will be away some time?"

"I'm afraid so. It's a big province, though there are not a great many
settlements in it yet; and I may have to cross over into British
Columbia."

Gertrude looked down.

"It is very generous of you to go, but I shall miss you. I shall feel as
if I had lost my chief support."

"So far, I've done nothing but talk; and talk is cheap," he laughed.

"You have given me courage," she said with shy hesitation. "And sympathy
is worth a good deal."

He did not respond as she thought he might have done, and she continued:

"If my father had been less obstinate, you need not have gone; he could
have hired a professional inquiry agent. But you had better not say
anything about your object to him--it must be a secret between us."

"Yes," assented Prescott thoughtfully, "I guess that would be wiser. You
want to keep his mind at rest as far as you can. Of course, there's a big
chance that I may fail."

Gertrude turned to him with a smile.

"Oh, no! You are not one to fail!"

Prescott was slightly embarrassed. He had a feeling that he was being
gently led on toward a closer acquaintance with his companion. She was
dropping the reserve she had at first displayed and seemed to invite him
tacitly into her confidence. He admitted that this idea might be
incorrect, but it had troubled him once or twice before.

"I expect you'll be comfortable enough while I'm away," he said. "Mrs.
Svendsen's trustworthy, and everything will be quiet after the harvesters
have gone."

Gertrude did not answer, and they went on in silence to the noisy
separator. Perspiring men, stripped of their heavier garments, were
tossing the sheaves amid a cloud of dust; cleaned grain poured out into
open bags, and as each was filled two panting toilers flung it into a
wagon. Near-by stood a great and growing pile of bags, over which the
short straw would be spread a number of feet thick, to form a granary.
Gertrude joined her father, who was standing near the machine, moodily
looking on, and before Prescott had unloaded his wagon Curtis rode up
with Private Stanton.

"Nothing new at the muskeg, sir," he reported to Jernyngham rather
curtly, and walked his horse toward Prescott.

"We were passing," he told him, and indicated the pile of grain. "You're
not selling right away?"

"No; I'm not ready to haul the crop in to the elevators yet. I've one or
two more pressing things to do."

"Mayn't you miss a chance? Prices are pretty good."

Prescott was on his guard; he felt that Curtis suspected him.

"I don't know," he answered. "I guess they won't fall much."

"Your neighbors mean to sell, though it's quite likely that's to meet
their bills, and you always tried to get in on the first of the market
until this year. It must have cost you a pile to put in that big crop."

"It did."

"Then how have you got so prosperous since last fall?"

It was a pointed question, because everybody in the district knew that
Prescott had sold only a few head of cattle and a horse or two, while he
would shortly have his accounts to meet.

"It's a matter of management," he replied. "I've been working on a
different system this spring, and I find it pays." Then he looked
steadily at the corporal, "Besides, running Jernyngham's place along with
mine made it easier to cut expenses."

"It's a great crop. But we must be getting on."

He rode off and when they had left the stubble, Private Stanton looked at
him.

"His being able to hold his wheat; which he couldn't do last year, is a
pretty strong count against the man. You gave him his chance for
explaining and he made a mighty bad show. Looks as if he'd got some money
he couldn't account for since last fall."

"Not proved," returned Curtis. "There's something in what he said.
Anyway, he isn't afraid of us, since he's putting up his grain."

"I don't quite catch on."

Curtis smiled.

"You're young. A guilty man would have rushed his crop into the elevators
and had his money ready to light out with. If Prescott pulls out
suddenly, he'll have to leave his property behind."

"The thing's between him and Wandle," Stanton persisted.

"Looks like that. Anyway, as the Austrian's at the settlement, we'll have
a good look round his homestead. It's possible that we'll find
something."

"What made you think of searching the place again? Anything in the last
instructions you got from Regina? You didn't show them to me."

"That's so. It isn't a part of my duty to consult you, and you're a bit
of a hustler. However, this is what I heard--a land agent in Navarino
sent for the district sergeant; told him he'd run across a man from
Sebastian at the hotel and the fellow got talking about Jernyngham. It
was the first the land agent had heard of the matter; but he was struck
by the date on which Jernyngham disappeared, because he'd had a deal with
him three days later."

"That's mighty strange. If he's right, Jernyngham couldn't have been
killed."

"Don't hustle!" said Curtis. "The fellow showed the sergeant the sale
record, but he described Jernyngham as a big, rather stout man with light
hair."

"Wandle!" exclaimed Stanton. "Are you going to arrest him?"

"Not yet. We might get him sent up for fraud and forgery, but if he had
anything to do with knocking Jernyngham out, he'll be more likely to give
us a clue of some kind while he's at large."

They rode on and reaching Wandle's farm searched the house carefully,
replacing everything exactly as they found it. They discovered nothing of
importance, but as they went out Curtis glanced at the ash and refuse
heap.

"We might have thought of that earlier," he said. "I've heard of people
trying to burn up things it might be dangerous to leave about."

Setting to work with a fork and shovel, they presently unearthed a rusty
iron object which Stanton picked up.

"Looks like a big meat can," he remarked. "Kind of curious that Wandle
should double it over this way and flatten it down."

Curtis took it from him and examined it carefully.

"It isn't a meat can; top edges are turned over a wire--here's a bit
sticking out--and it's had a handle. There's a hinge in another place.
The thing has been a box--a cash-box, I guess--one of the rubbishy kind
they sell for about a dollar."

"But what would make a man smash up his cash-box?"

"I don't know; guess it doesn't apply. I could understand his wanting to
get rid of one that belonged to somebody else, after he'd cleaned it out.
Aren't you beginning to understand?"

"Sure," said Stanton eagerly. "The box was Jernyngham's--we'll find out
when he bought it at the hardware store. Then we'll get after Wandle."

"You hustle too much!" Curtis rebuked him, and then sat down with knitted
brows. "Now see here--in a general way, it's convictions we're out for;
you want to count on your verdict before you arrest a man. It comes to
this: he's tried first by us, and if he's to be let off, it saves trouble
if we decide the thing, instead of leaving it to the jury. They won't
tell you that at Regina, but, in practise, you'll find that a police
trooper is expected to use some judgment. Still, there are exceptions to
what I've said about holding back. In the interests of justice, one might
have to corral an innocent man."

"How's that going to serve the interests of justice?"

The corporal's eyes twinkled with dry amusement.

"For one thing, it might lead the fellow we were really after to think we
hadn't struck his trail. But that's not the point. How much ash would you
figure Wandle takes out of his stove each time he lights it?"

"About a bucketful, burning wood."

"Not quite, but there's a bucket yonder. See how many times you can fill
it with the stuff we shoveled off, while I take a smoke. Build up the
pile to look as if we hadn't disturbed it."

Stanton did as he was bidden, counting each bucketful he replaced, and
then Curtis sent him to clean out the stove and estimate the quantity of
ash before he put it back. Then he made a calculation.

"Allowing for some of the ash slipping down the pile and for our having
moved a little that was there before Wandle threw the cash-box in, it
fixes the time he did so pretty close to Jernyngham's disappearance," he
remarked. "Looks bad against the Austrian, doesn't it?"

"You have quite as much against Prescott."

"Yes," Curtis admitted regretfully; "that's the trouble. It isn't quite
so easy being a policeman as folks seem to think. Now we'll ride along
and call on the hardware man."

They mounted and soon afterward saw a buggy emerge from the short pines
on the crest of a distant rise, whereupon Curtis rode hard for a poplar
bluff, which he kept between himself and the vehicle.

"Looks like Wandle coming back," he said to Stanton, who had followed
him. "I can't see any reason he should know we've been prospecting round
his place."

Reaching the settlement they visited the hardware dealer, who remembered
having sold Jernyngham a small cheap cash-box about twelve months
earlier. On being shown the bent-up iron, he expressed his belief that it
was the article in question.

A day or two after the corporal's discovery, the mail-carrier left some
letters at the Prescott homestead, and when it was getting dusk Gertrude
strolled out on the prairie, thinking of one she had received. After a
while Prescott joined her and she greeted him with a smile.

"My team was looking a bit played out and the boys will be able to keep
the separator gang going as long as they can see," he said.

"Do you feel that you have to make excuses for stopping work, after
twelve hours of it?" Gertrude asked.

"Yes," he laughed; "I do feel something of the kind. There's so much to
do and the days are getting shorter fast."

He glanced at her with appreciation. She wore a thin, black dress made
after the latest London mode, which showed to advantage the graceful
lines of her tall figure; the Jernynghams, who seldom departed from an
established custom, changed their attire every evening. Gertrude had on
no hat, and the fading light shone into her face. It was finely cut but
cold, the features unusually good. She was a handsome woman, but she
lacked warmth and softness.

"I'm in a difficulty," she told him. "Perhaps you can help--you're a man
of many resources."

"I'll be glad to do what I can."

"We are expecting a visit from three old friends of ours who heard in
America of the trouble we are in and want to see us. What can we do with
them?"

"I haven't room," Prescott answered. "But let me think--Leslie has quite
a big house, and it's only three miles from here. Now that he will have
got rid of the harvesters, he might be willing to take your friends in.
He and his wife are pleasant people; but I think you met her."

"Yes. I knew you wouldn't fail us," Gertrude said gratefully. "But, after
all, I feel inclined to wish they were not coming."

There was an elusive something in her tone which did not escape
Prescott's notice.

"Why do you wish that?" he asked.

"Oh," she said, "it's difficult to explain, but we have got used to the
mode of life here: the few people we meet seem to understand our
feelings, and we have learned to trust them. Strangers would rather spoil
it all; in a sense, their visit would be an intrusion."

Prescott realized that this was complimentary to him. She had made it
clear that he was not a stranger, but one of the people she trusted. The
effect was to render him somewhat embarrassed, but Gertrude resumed:

"I think we owe you a good deal. I don't know what we should have done
had we fallen into less considerate hands."

"I'm yours to command," he replied; and they walked on in silence for a
while, Gertrude glancing at him unobtrusively now and then.

She did not believe her brother dead--Prescott had reassured her; and now
she felt strongly attracted by the rancher. She had thrown off the
restraints in which she had long acquiesced; she was driven by a passion
which was rapidly overpowering her.

"You don't suggest that the Leslies should take us all," she said.

"No," Prescott answered gravely; "I'd rather keep you and your father
here."

"Then you're no longer anxious to get rid of us?"

He colored.

"That's true. I begin to feel I'm one of the party. Then, you see,
Leslie's pretty talkative and agrees with Curtis. He might have a bad
effect on your father; he might even shake your confidence."

"Oh," she begged, "don't labor the explanation. You are one of the party
and our friend."

Prescott bowed.

"I'll try to make that good. I'm going off to look for your brother in a
few more days, but it will cost me something to leave the homestead now."

He had spoken the truth. Until lately the man had been bereft of all the
amenities of life, but he had now grown to appreciate the society of
cultured people; the task of cheering and encouraging his guests had
become familiar; he might even have been drawn to the beautiful woman he
had comforted had not his heart been filled with the image of Muriel.

"But after the summer's hard monotonous work, a change must be nice," she
suggested.

"Yes; in a way. The trouble is that I must leave my guests."

Gertrude's eyes grew soft as they rested on him.

"We shall miss you," she murmured. "But you must go and find out all you
can; I'm afraid the mystery and suspense are breaking my father down."

They walked on in silence for a while, and then Svendsen appeared near
the homestead, waving his arm.

"Looks as if I were wanted," Prescott remarked; "I believe there's a
wagon to be fixed. Will you excuse me? I'll ride over and have a talk
with Leslie in the morning."



CHAPTER XI

A REVELATION


The sun had just dipped, leaving a rim of flaring color on the edge of
the vast plain, when Prescott sat smoking on the stoop of the Leslie
homestead a week after his evening walk with Gertrude. Leslie and his
wife were simple people from Ontario, who had prospered in the last few
years. Their crops had escaped rust and hail and autumn frost, and as a
result of this, the rancher had replaced his rude frame dwelling with a
commodious house, built, with lower walls of brick and wood above, in a
somewhat ornate style copied from the small villas which are springing up
on the outskirts of the western towns.

Leslie, an elderly, brown-faced man, sat near Prescott; the Jernynghams,
who had driven over to welcome his friends, were inside, talking to Mrs.
Leslie.

"Guess you don't know much about the English people we're expecting?"
Leslie asked.

"No," said Prescott; "only that they're friends of the Jernynghams. I
don't think I've even heard their names yet."

"Mrs. Leslie knows," rejoined the farmer; "I forget it. I feel kind of
sorry now that she agreed to take them in, but you made a point of it,
and if the man's not so blamed stand-offish, I'll have somebody to talk
to."

"I wouldn't talk too much about Cyril Jernyngham."

Leslie looked hard at him.

"There's one point, Jack, where I can't agree with you--you're the only
man in this district who doesn't believe Jernyngham's dead. It strikes me
that you know more about the thing than you have told anybody yet."

"Let it go at that," said Prescott awkwardly, "All I could say would only
bring more trouble on his people, and they've had quite enough."

"Sure," agreed Leslie, raising his hand in warning. "Sh-h! They're coming
out."

The next moment Gertrude and her father joined the men, and after a few
words with them stood still, listening. A long bluff, through which the
trail from the settlement led, ran close up to the homestead, cutting
against the pale green glow of the sky. For a few minutes there was a
deep silence, intensified by the musical clash of cowbells in the
distance, and then a measured, drumming sound rose softly from behind the
trees.

"Guess that's your friends," Leslie said to Jernyngham. "Jim's made
pretty good time."

The beat of hoofs grew nearer until the listeners could hear the rattle
of wheels. Then a light, four-wheeled vehicle came lurching out of the
bluff and Jernyngham hurried down the steps. Prescott had entered the
house to tell Mrs. Leslie, and he came out as the driver pulled up his
team. The occupants of the wagon, which had run a little past the door,
had their backs to him, but seeing a girl about to alight he sprang
forward. Her head was turned away from him at first, but she glanced
round when he offered to assist her; and he forgot what the consequences
of the meeting must be as he looked into the eyes of Muriel Hurst. He was
conscious of an overwhelming delight, which showed itself in his shining
eyes and the warm color that suddenly flushed his face; Gertrude
Jernyngham, standing beside him, read what was in his heart.

The effect on Muriel was as marked. He had seized her hand and as she was
standing precariously poised, ready to descend, he swung her down. Then
she recoiled from him, startled, but with strong relief in her
expression.

"Cyril!" she cried in a strained voice. "Why didn't you write and tell us
that it was all a mistake? We heard that you were dead!"

Then Prescott remembered and his heart sank, but he strove to gather his
courage, for there was a crisis to be faced. He stood silent, with one
hand clenched tight, while Gertrude watched him with hard, unwavering
eyes. Jernyngham, however, had heard Muriel's startled exclamation and
hurried toward her.

"What's this?" he asked harshly. "You called my son's name!"

The girl looked at Prescott; troubled and surprised by the confused
emotions his face betrayed. There was obviously something wrong, but she
could not imagine what it was.

"Yes," she said, "I called him Cyril. Why shouldn't I?"

Colston and his wife joined the group, while the driver looked on from
the wagon and the Leslies from the stoop. Prescott and the girl stood a
little distance apart and Muriel was sensible of a nervous shiver. When
Prescott had first held up his hand to her, she had seen his keen
pleasure and her heart had responded to it; now, however, she was filled
with dismay.

Jernyngham answered her in curt, stern tones:

"There's one very good reason--this is not my son!"

"Not Cyril!" Colston broke in. "But he made us believe he was; he's the
man we stayed with!" He made a puzzled gesture. "I can't understand the
thing."

"Nor I," replied Jernyngham. "Is this the man you wrote to us about?"

"Of course!" said Colston stupidly. "I thought he was Cyril; so did we
all. We had no cause to doubt it."

Jernyngham turned in fury to the Leslies.

"Who is the fellow?" he demanded.

Prescott braced himself.

"I'll answer that--Jack Prescott. Mr. Colston stayed at my homestead."

"And you personated my son? I suppose you had some motive for doing so
and must see that we are entitled to an explanation?"

"Yes," Prescott returned quietly. "This isn't the place to make it.
Hadn't you better take your friends in?"

They entered the house, which was getting dark, and while the hired man
carried in the baggage Leslie lighted a lamp in his sitting-room. It was
spacious, roughly paneled in cedar, with an uncovered floor. There were a
few chairs scattered about and a plain pine table. Jernyngham sat by the
table and the others found seats here and there, except Prescott, who
stood quietly opposite the old man. At a curt sign from Jernyngham,
Leslie and his wife left the room.

"Mr. Prescott," Jernyngham began, "you have deceived my friends here and
I think they should remain to hear what you have to say, but I will
dismiss them if you prefer it. You are responsible to me and I must ask
for a full account of your conduct."

Prescott glanced round the room, which reminded him of a court. Gertrude
Jernyngham's eyes were fixed on him, and there was a hardness that hinted
at cruelty in them; she looked very dignified and cold. Mrs. Colston he
could not see, but her husband seemed disturbed and uneasy. Muriel leaned
forward in her chair, with wonder, apprehension, and pity curiously
mingled in her expression. All of them were very still, the silence was
disconcerting, but Prescott roused himself to make what defense he could.

"I passed for Cyril Jernyngham at his request," he said.

"An extraordinary statement!" Jernyngham remarked with ironical
incredulity. "May one ask if he gave any reasons for wishing you to do
so?"

Prescott hesitated, which counted against him.

"Well," he said, "Cyril had got hurt in a row at the settlement a few
hours before Mr. Colston's arrival. His head was badly cut; he thought it
might make a bad impression."

"That doesn't sound very convincing. Had he no better reason?"

The rancher paused to think. He would not explain that his friend's mode
of life would not have borne a critical examination, but he had a duty to
himself and something must be urged.

"I think he meant to hide the fact that he was married. He did not wish
your friends to meet his wife."

Colston started and it was obvious that the others were keenly
interested, but Jernyngham's face grew darker and marked by signs of
pain, for he had learned a little about Ellice. He was struggling with an
overwhelming humiliation.

"We'll let that pass," he said. "It's a matter that cannot be discussed.
Was Mr. Colston's visit the only time you personated my son?"

"Certainly! Nothing would induce me to play the part again."

"Then you will be surprised to hear that shortly after Cyril's
disappearance a man sold some land of his at a town farther along the
line?"

"I am surprised, but I believe it must have been Cyril."

"Then his handwriting must have totally changed, which I believe is a
very unusual thing," Jernyngham rejoined sarcastically. "I have been
shown some documents which he is supposed to have filled in."

Prescott began to realize that appearances were very strongly against
him. He had admitted having once impersonated his friend and it would be
difficult to convince those who had heard his confession that he had not
done so again, when there was a strong motive for it in the price of the
land.

"Well," he said firmly; "if the handwriting wasn't Cyril's, I can't tell
whose it was; it certainly wasn't mine. There's one thing I'm convinced
of--your son is not dead."

Jernyngham looked at him; with the veins on his forehead swollen and his
face tense with anger, but he held himself in hand.

"You have said so often. I did not believe you; I do not believe you now;
but your object in making the statement is easy to understand. I've no
doubt you realize that you lie open to a very ugly suspicion."

"No!" a strained voice broke in. "That is not just!"

Looking up, Prescott saw that it was Muriel who had spoken. Her eyes were
bright with indignation and her face was hot, but none of the others
showed him any sympathy. Colston's face was grave and troubled, his
wife's expressionless; Gertrude Jernyngham looked more determined and
more merciless than her father. She sat very still, coldly watching him.

"Thank you," he said to Muriel. "It's comforting to find one person who
does not think the worst of me."

"Silence, sir!" Jernyngham exclaimed with the air of a judge rebuking a
prisoner of whose guilt he is convinced. "You cannot be permitted to
speak to this lady."

"I think that is a point for Mrs. Colston to decide, but we'll let it
drop. Out of consideration for you, I've answered your questions; but you
have gone too far, and this must end." Prescott's expression grew as
stern as the old man's and he looked about with pride. "I tell you it
must stop! What right have you to fling these infamous hints at me?"

Jernyngham broke into a harsh laugh.

"The part of an innocent man is too much for you to play; we won't force
you into it. It will be a favor if you will have our baggage sent across
here; needless to say, neither my daughter nor I can re-enter your
house." Then his self-control deserted him and he broke out in hot fury:
"I firmly believe you are the man who killed my son, and you shall not
escape!"

"I think," said Colston quietly, "that is going too far."

Making no answer, Prescott left them; and he was harnessing his horse
outside when, somewhat to his astonishment, Muriel came toward him. A
half-moon hung low above the bluff and the silvery light shone into her
face, showing her warmth of color and the sparkle in her eyes. He thought
she looked wonderfully attractive and his heart throbbed faster, but he
knew he must hold himself in hand.

"Hadn't you better go back?" he asked. "You have heard what your friends
think of me."

"What does that matter?" she exclaimed with feeling. "I'm very angry with
them. I can't let you go without saying that I know you could not have
done what you have been wickedly accused of."

"I'm glad. Thank you. It's a big relief to feel that you believe in me.
So long as I have that assurance nothing else counts."

"Harry Colston's not convinced; I believe he's trying to keep an open
mind."

"Is that so?" said Prescott. "I don't expect much from him. He's the kind
of man who's guided by appearances and seldom does anything out of the
common."

Muriel disregarded this.

"But you were very foolish in deceiving us. I can't understand yet why
you did so."

"I can only tell you that it was for Cyril's sake."

"Oh," she cried, "it could not have been because of any benefit that you
would get! That would never have tempted you."

He read unshaken confidence in her eyes and it cost him a stern effort to
refrain from reckless speech. Muriel was beautiful, but that was not all:
she was generous and fearless, a loyal friend and a staunch partizan.

"Well," Prescott confessed, "when I explained, I was more afraid of you
than of Jernyngham. I wanted to keep your good opinion, and I wondered
whether you had only given it to me because you thought I was Cyril
Jernyngham. From your friends' point of view Jack Prescott is a very
different kind of person."

Muriel blushed.

"Is it unpardonable that I was angry when I first found out the mistake?
Try to imagine with what ideas I have been brought up. But the feeling
left me when I saw how merciless Jernyngham was; his hard words turned it
into sympathy."

"That is something to be thankful for, though it doesn't content me. I
think you would be sorry for any one, even an enemy, who was in trouble
and getting hurt."

She grasped his meaning and looked at him steadily with an air of pride.

"Then must I tell you that I have as much faith in Jack Prescott as I had
in the man whom I supposed to be Cyril Jernyngham? But you must justify
my confidence. You have been wrongly and cruelly accused; don't you see
the duty that lies on you?"

"Yes," Prescott answered gravely; "I have to clear myself. If there were
no other reason than the one you have given, it would have to be done.
It's going to be a tough proposition, but I'll get about it very soon."

"You know that I wish you all success," she told him softly.

Then she held out her hand and turned away. When she had gone Prescott
went on with his work and after buckling the last strap he found that he
had forgotten a parcel Mrs. Leslie had asked him to deliver. Hurrying
back to the house for it, he met Gertrude Jernyngham in the hall and she
stopped where the light fell on her, instead of avoiding him as he had
expected. There was suspicion in her eyes.

"I see you agree with your father," he said boldly.

"Yes," she replied in a scornful tone. "You can pose rather cleverly--you
tricked me into trusting you, but your ability is limited, after all.
When the strain comes, you break down. Could anything have been feebler
than the defense you made?"

"It was pretty lame, but every word was true."

"Oh," she cried with disgust and impatience, "one wouldn't expect you to
say it was false! You don't seem to have anything more convincing to
add."

"I'm going to add nothing. It isn't very long since you were willing to
take my word."

"I'm afraid I was easily deceived," Gertrude said bitterly. "I didn't
know you had twice passed yourself off as my brother, and you can't
complain if we see an obvious motive for your doing so the second time."

"You mean that I stole the price of Cyril's land?" Prescott asked
sternly.

"Yes," she said, watching him with cruel eyes. "That, however, is not the
worst." She struggled with rising passion before she resumed: "I
believe----"

Prescott raised his hand commandingly.

"Stop! I'm going away to find your brother."

"One can understand your going away!" she flung back at him as she passed
on down the hall.

Prescott drove home at a reckless pace. Facing the situation boldly, he
recognized that the outlook was very dark.



CHAPTER XII

PRESCOTT'S FLIGHT


Two days after the arrival of the Colstons, Gertrude Jernyngham walked
down the trail from the Leslie homestead in a very bitter mood. During
the last few weeks her cold nature had kindled into sudden warmth; love
had most unexpectedly crept into her heart. At first she had struggled
against and been ashamed of it, for its object was a man beneath her in
rank and of widely different mode of thought; but by degrees the judgment
she had hitherto exercised had given place to passion. After the narrow,
conventional life she had led, there was a strange exhilaration and
excitement in yielding to her impulses; the virility of Prescott's
character and his physical perfection stirred her. She desired him and
had boldly used such charms as she possessed in his subjugation. Misled
by his gentleness, she imagined him responsive, and then Muriel had
appeared on the scene and the truth was plain to her when she saw his
face light up at sight of the girl. She had read warm love in his eager
glance.

Now Gertrude was crushed and humbled. She had cheapened herself, as she
thought of it, to this rancher, only to find that he preferred another.
Her punishment was severe, but she felt that it was deserved, and her
ripening passion had turned to something very much like hate. Whether he
had really had any hand in her brother's death was a point she would not
calmly reason out, though she had a half-conscious feeling that he could
not be charged with this. She wanted to think him base: to believe in his
guilt would be an excuse for making him suffer.

While she walked, she cast quick glances across the waste of grass,
looking for a mounted figure that did not appear, until at last she
turned with a start at the sound of footsteps as Muriel came up.

"I saw you alone and thought I would join you," Muriel said.

"It's a relief to be by oneself now and then," Gertrude answered with
curt ungraciousness.

"One can understand that. I tried to give Harry a hint that our visit
might be an intrusion, when he talked of joining your father; but he
thought it would be some comfort for you to have your friends about you."

"He was some time in putting his idea into practise."

"We started as soon as we heard of your trouble," said Muriel. "We were
in Mexico then, and as we had moved about a good deal there was some
delay in our letters. Has your father decided to stay with the Leslies?"

"Yes, for a while. It was, of course, impossible for us to remain with
Mr. Prescott."

"Why could you not?" Muriel asked with sparkling eyes.

"Isn't it obvious, after what you heard the man admit?"

Muriel stopped, the color creeping into her face, which was filled with
anger.

"It's impossible that Mr. Prescott could have had any connection with
Cyril's disappearance. It's wicked and cruel to suspect him!"

"You seem strangely convinced of his innocence," Gertrude retorted with a
somber glance at her. "We shall see by and by whether you or my father is
right."

They walked on slowly, and shortly afterward two mounted figures appeared
on the plain. Gertrude watched them draw near, and then turned to her
companion.

"The police; we have been expecting them," she said. "My father sent a
message to the corporal after Prescott had gone."

"Then he will be deeply ashamed of his harshness before long," Muriel
declared as she abruptly moved away.

Gertrude let her go with a cruel smile. She thought she knew how matters
stood, and if the girl were suffering, she had no pity for her. Then she
waited until the police trotted by, and afterward walked slowly toward
the house. On reaching it, she met Curtis coming out and he asked for a
word with her.

"I understand you were the last person to see Prescott when he left this
place the other night," he said.

Gertrude admitted it, watching the man. He looked disturbed, as if he did
not know what to think. Private Stanton was sitting in his saddle with an
expressionless face a few yards away, but she imagined it was intended
that he should hear her answers.

"Well," Curtis resumed, "I have to ask what he said to you; anyway, so
far as it bears on the business we have in hand. You know why I was sent
for?"

Gertrude hesitated. She was very angry with Prescott, and there was a
statement he had made which would prove damaging to him if she repeated
part of it without the rest. She shrank from this course, but her rancor
against the man suddenly grew too strong for her.

"I suppose I must answer that?"

"It's your duty."

"Then," she said in a strained voice, "Mr. Prescott told me he was going
away."

"Going away!" Curtis looked astonished. "I guess you realize that this is
a serious matter. Did he mention when?"

"I understood it would be very soon." Gertrude looked at the man
haughtily. "That is all I have to tell."

She went into the house, feeling that she had said enough, and Curtis
motioned to his companion and rode away. They had gone some distance when
Stanton turned to his superior.

"Pretty significant. What are you going to do about it?" he asked.

"I'll have to apply for a warrant."

"You certainly will."

"Well," Curtis went on, "this thing isn't quite so simple as it seems. To
begin with, it's my idea that Miss Jernyngham hasn't told us all she
knows; you want to remember that Prescott's a good-looking fellow with a
taking manner. I can see complications, though I can't get the right
drift of them."

"Guess the matter will be worse mussed up if Prescott lights out. Now
that Bardsley's gone down the line, you can't get your warrant for a day
or two."

"That's so," Curtis agreed. "I'll make for the settlement and wire
Bardsley and our bosses at Regina; you'll ride on and keep Prescott in
sight--though it would be better if you didn't let him know you were
watching him. When he clears, take the trail behind him and send back
word to Sebastian. Soon as I get the warrant or instructions, I'll come
after you."

They separated and some time later Stanton took up his station in a bluff
which commanded a view of the Prescott homestead. Lying hidden with his
horse, he saw the rancher drive up and disappear within the house.
Prescott had been very busy during the past two days and had found
strenuous application something of a relief. He recognized that suspicion
was centering on him and that he might expect a visit from the police,
but the only way of proving his innocence that he could see was to
produce his supposed victim. He foresaw that it might take a long while
to find the man, and he must make preparations for a lengthy absence. The
risk he ran in remaining until he had completed them was grave, but there
was a vein of dogged persistency in him and he would not go before he was
ready.

He had, however, other matters to think of. Miss Jernyngham had turned
against him; after the confidence she had expressed, he could not
understand why she had done so. Muriel Hurst, however, still believed in
him, which was a comforting thought, though he would not permit himself
to dwell on it. He loved the girl, but it seemed impossible that she
should marry him. There was so much against this: the mode of life to
which she had been accustomed, his obscure position, the prejudices of
her relations. He blamed himself for not struggling more determinedly
against the charm she had exerted on him; but it was too late to regret
this now. He must bear his trouble and try to think of her as seldom as
possible, which would be the easier, inasmuch as the work that waited him
would demand his close attention. As soon as it grew dark that evening,
he must set off on his search for Cyril Jernyngham.

Dusk was falling when he rode away from the homestead with a couple of
blankets and provisions for a few days strapped to his saddle. Though he
could trust Svendsen to look after things in his absence, he was anxious
and dejected, and it was with keen regret that he cast a last glance
across the sweep of shadowy stubble toward the lighted windows of the
house. All he saw belonged to him; he had by patient labor in frost and
scorching sun built up the farm, and he was conscious of a strong love
for it. It was hard to go away, an outcast, branded with black suspicion,
leaving the place in another's charge; but there was no remedy.

The sky was faintly clouded, the moon, which was near its setting,
obscured; the prairie ran back, dim and blurred; the air was keen and
still. Prescott thought he heard a soft beat of hoofs behind him. He
could, however, see nobody, and he rode on faster, heading for the house
of a neighbor with whom he had some business, near the trail to the
settlement. After a while he pulled up, and listening carefully heard the
sound again. It looked as if he were being followed and he thought that
if the police were on his trail, they would expect him to make for the
American frontier, and to do that he must pass through or near Sebastian.
If they believed this was his object, it might save him trouble, for he
meant to ride north in search of Jernyngham after calling at the farm.

Checking his horse, he rode on without haste until it became obvious that
the man behind was drawing up, then he set off at a gallop. Behind the
farm he meant to visit lay a belt of broken ground, marked by scrub and
scattered bluffs, where it should not be difficult to evade his pursuer.
The staccato thud of the gallop would ring far through the still, night
air, but this was of no consequence; he was some distance ahead and his
horse was fresh and powerful. In a few minutes he believed that he was
gaining and when he rode into sight of the little wooden house, which
showed up black against the sky with one dim light in it, he was seized
by a new idea. A horse stood outside the door, and he supposed the
rancher had just returned. The man was a friend of Prescott's and
believed in his innocence.

"Larry," he cried as he rode up, and added when a shadowy figure came
out: "You can send along your teams and do that breaking we were speaking
of. Svendsen will pay you when you're through with it. I'm off to the
north."

"Ah!" exclaimed the other sharply. "I guess I know what you're after. It
strikes me you should have gone before."

He paused with a lifted hand as he heard the drumming of hoofs, and
Prescott laughed.

"That's so. I believe you'll have a police trooper here in the next few
minutes. Your horse is still saddled?"

"Yes; I've just come back from Gillom's."

"Then get up and ride for the settlement. Mail an order for some harness
or anything useful to Regina by the night train, when you get there; you
can let Svendsen have the bill. You had better go pretty fast and keep
ahead of the trooper as long as you can. I guess you understand."

"Sure," grinned the other, and getting into the saddle, rode away at a
smart trot, while Prescott dismounted and led his horse quietly toward
the nearest bluff.

On reaching it he stopped and, listening carefully, heard the rancher
riding down the trail to Sebastian, and another beat of hoofs that grew
rapidly louder. By and by he made out a dim mounted figure that pressed
on fast across the shadowy waste, and for a few anxious moments wondered
whether the policeman would call at the house and discover its owner's
absence. He passed on, however, and was presently lost in the darkness.
When the drumming of his horse's hoofs gradually died away, Prescott
mounted and rode hard toward the north. It would, he thought, be an hour
or two before the trooper found out his mistake; the rancher would not
betray him, and there was a prospect of his getting clear away.



CHAPTER XIII

THE CONSTRUCTION CAMP


The light was fading when Prescott walked into sight of the construction
camp. It was situated on the edge of a belt of a muskeg sprinkled with
birches and small pines, where the new railroad, leaving the open country
to the south, ran up toward the great coniferous forest that fringes the
northern portion of the prairie. Prescott had sold his horse at a lonely
farm and he was now tired and hungry, but he felt satisfied that he was
on the right track and had succeeded in eluding the police. Curtis and
Private Stanton were men of fixed ideas; believing Jernyngham to be dead,
they had, no doubt, merely made a few perfunctory inquiries at the
nearest railroad camps. Moreover, as they had reason for concluding that
Prescott would seek refuge across the American boundary, they would
concentrate their efforts on looking for him there. Accordingly, he felt
safe from pursuit.

By and by he stopped to look about. To the eastward all was gray, a dim
waste of grass dotted with shadowy trees; but a vivid band of green still
glowed on the western horizon. In front lay a broad shallow basin,
streaked with filmy trails of mist, between which came the wan gleam of
little pools. A causeway stretched out into the morass, sprinkled with
the indistinct figures of toiling men. At its inner end, where it left
the higher ground, a row of cars stood on a side-track, and near-by there
were ranged straggling lines of tents and wooden shacks. Wisps of blue
smoke drifted across the swamp, and a beam of strong white light streamed
out from the electric head-lamp of a locomotive. The still air was filled
with the clink of shovels, the clang of flung-down rails, and the sharp
rattle of falling gravel.

Going on until he reached the camp, Prescott stopped beside a group of
men sitting about a fire, and loosed the heavy pack that galled his
shoulders.

"If you can give me a place to lie down and a bit of supper, boys, I'd be
obliged," he said.

Two or three of them turned and looked at him without much curiosity.
They were strong, brown-faced fellows, dressed in old duck overalls and
slate-colored shirts, with shapeless hats and dilapidated knee-boots.

"Why, certainly," responded one in a clean English intonation. "However,
as we're paying for our board, we'll have to invite you as the guest of
the construction contractor; but there's no reason you should be shy
about accepting his hospitality. Sit down until Shan Li brings the grub
along."

"Here's a place," said another. "Want a job?"

"I don't know yet," Prescott answered. "I'm looking for a friend of mine:
man of middle height, with pale-blue eyes and a curious twinkling smile.
He was wearing a green shirt of finer stuff than they generally sell at
the settlements when I last saw him, and I expect he'd have a fresh scar
on his head."

There was signs of interest and amusement which suggested that Prescott
was on the right track.

"Did he call himself Kermode?" one of the men asked.

Prescott hesitated. It was possible that some of them had heard of the
Jernyngham affair, and he had no wish that they should connect him with
it. While he considered his answer, the man with the English accent broke
in:

"We needn't trouble about the point. One name's as good as another, as
our friend Kermode, who seems to have been a bit of philosopher, remarked
when they put him on the pay-roll."

"When I was back at Nelson a smart policeman rode into the camp," said
another of the group. "Wanted to know if we had seen the man you're
asking for; gave us quite a good description of him. Anyway, I hadn't
seen him then, and when I struck him afterward I didn't send word to the
police. I've no use for those fellows; they're best left alone."

"Then you know him?" Prescott exclaimed eagerly.

The man looked at his comrades and there was a laugh.

"Oh, yes," said one of them; "we know him all right. Glad to meet a man
who's a friend of his; but if you expect a job here, you don't want to
mention it. If another fellow of that kind comes along, the boss will get
after him with a gun."

"Kermode," the Englishman explained, "is a man of happy and original
thoughts. I believe I might say he is unique."

The conversation was interrupted by a steadily increasing rattle, and a
great light that moved swiftly blazed on the camp. It faded as a
ballast-train rolled out upon the bank which traversed the swamp, with a
swarm of indistinct figures clinging to the low cars. When it stopped,
the sides of the cars fell outward, a big plow moved forward from one to
another, and broken rock and gravel, pouring off, went crashing and
rattling down the slope. The noise it made rang harshly through the
stillness of the evening, and when it ceased a whistle screamed and the
clangor of the wheels began again. As the engine backed the train away,
the blaze of the head-lamp fell on an object lying half buried in the
muskeg about sixty feet below the line, and one of the men, pointing to
it, touched Prescott's arm.

"See what that is?" he said.

Prescott saw that it was what the railroad builders call a steel dump: a
metal wagon capable of carrying thirty or forty tons of ballast, with an
automatic arrangement for throwing out its load.

"How did it get there?" he asked.

"Tell you after supper," said the fellow. "They're bringing it along."

A whistle blew and Prescott followed his companions into a shed built of
railroad ties and galvanized iron. It was lighted by kerosene lamps which
diffused an unpleasant odor, and fitted with rude tables and benches; but
the meal laid out in it was bountiful and varied: pork, hard steak, fish
from the lakes, potatoes, desiccated fruits, and tea. The shovel-gang
paid six dollars a week for their board and got good value. As usual,
most of them were satisfied in fifteen minutes, for in the West the rank
and file eat with determined haste, and when they trooped out Prescott
went back with his new friends to the fire. Taking out his pipe, he made
himself as comfortable as possible on a pile of gravel and, tired with a
long day's march, looked lazily about. The strong light still blazed
along the bank where hurrying men passed through the stream of radiance,
vanished into the shadows, and appeared again. There was a continuous
rattling and clinking and roar of falling stones; rails rang as they were
moved, and now and then hoarse orders came out of the darkness.

After Prescott had asked a few leading questions, the men began to talk
of Kermode, who had already left the camp, and the rancher was able to
put together the story of his doings there.

                    *       *       *       *       *

The muskeg was an unusually bad one. It swallowed the rock the men dumped
in; logs, brush, and branches afforded no foundation, and a long time
elapsed before the engineers were satisfied about the base of the
embankment. The weather remained unusually hot until late in the fall,
and the contractor, already behind time and anxious to make progress
before the frost interfered with his work, developed a virulent temper.
His construction foreman drove the men mercilessly, spurring on the
laggards with scathing words and occasionally using a heavy fist when
they showed resentment. The laborers' nerves were worn raw, their
strength was exhausted; but the muskeg must be filled and, while carload
after carload of rock and gravel was hurled down, the line crept on.

Things were in this state when Kermode reached the camp and, on applying
for work, was given a shovel and made to use it in a strenuous fashion.
It appeared that he was not expert with the tool and the foreman's most
pointed remarks were generally addressed to him, but he had a humorous
manner which gained him friends. Once or twice, to his comrades'
admiration, he engaged his persecutor in a wordy contest and badly routed
him, which did not improve matters. Indeed, his last victory proved a
costly one, because afterward when there was anything particularly
unpleasant or dangerous to be done, Kermode was selected. As it happened,
the risks that must be faced were numerous.

Kermode stood it for some weeks, though he grew thin and his hands were
often bleeding. In spite of this, his eyes still twinkled mischievously
and, when occasion demanded, his retort was swift and edged with wit. Now
and then he made reprisals, for when, as happened once or twice, a load
of gravel nearly swept the foreman down the bank, Kermode was engaged in
the vicinity. Another time, the bullying martinet was forced to jump into
the muskeg, where he sank to the waist, in order to avoid a mass of
ballast sent down before its descent was looked for.

There was a difference of opinion about the cause of Kermode's holding
out. Some of his comrades said he must have meant to wait for the arrival
of the pay car, so as to draw his wages before he left; others declared
that this did not count with him, and he stayed because he would not be
driven out. The Englishman took the latter view for, as he told Prescott,
Kermode once said to him, "I want the opposition to remember me when I
quit."

By degrees the foreman's gibes grew less frequent. Kermode was more than
a match for him, and his barbed replies were repeated with laughter about
the camp; but his oppressor now relied on galling commands which could
not be disobeyed. Kermode's companions sympathized with him, and waited
for the inevitable rupture, which they thought would take a dramatic
shape. At length two big steel dump cars were sent up from the east and
run backward and forward between the muskeg and a distant cutting where
they were filled with broken rock. This was deposited in places where the
embankment needed the most reinforcing, but after a while the foreman
decided that the locomotive of the gravel train need not be detained to
move the cars. They could, he said, be pushed by hand, and nobody was
surprised when Kermode was among the men chosen for the task.

Though the nights were getting cold, the days were still very hot, and
those engaged in it found the work of propelling a steel car carrying
about thirty tons of stone over rails laid roughly on a slight upward
grade remarkably arduous. This, however, did not content the foreman. He
took two men away; and when those whom he left had been worked to
exhaustion, he changed them, with the exception of Kermode, who was kept
steadily at the task. As a result, he came to be looked on as leader of
the gang, and his companions took their instructions from him, which the
foreman concurred in, because it enabled him to hold Kermode responsible
for everything that went wrong.

Then the pay car arrived, and when wages were drawn, the men awaited
developments with interest; but nothing unusual occurred until a week had
passed. Kermode had had his hand crushed by a heavy stone and meant to
rest it for a day or two, but his persecutor drove him out to work. He
obeyed with suspicious meekness and toiled in the scorching sun all day;
but a few minutes before the signal to stop in the evening for which they
were eagerly waiting, the gang was ordered to run a loaded dump car to
the end of the line. The men were worn out, short in temper, and dripping
with perspiration. Kermode's hand pained him and in trying to save it he
had strained his shoulder; but he encouraged the others, and they slowly
pushed the load along, moving it a yard or two, and stopping for breath.
The men on the bank were dawdling through the last few minutes, waiting
to lay down their tools, and they offered the gang their sympathy as they
passed. Then there was a change in their attitude as the foreman strode
up the track.

"Shove!" he ordered. "Get a move on! You have to dump that rock before
you quit."

They were ready to turn on him and Kermode's eyes flashed; but he spoke
quietly to his men:

"Push!"

A few more yards were covered, the foreman walking beside the gang until
they stopped for breath.

"Get on!" he cried. "Send her along, you slobs!"

"We're pretty near the top of the grade," Kermode answered him quietly.
"We want to go easy, so as to stop her at the dumping-place."

The line, when finished, would cross the muskeg with a slight ascent; but
the bank sank as they worked at it, and the track now led downhill toward
its end. The foreman failed to remember this in his vicious mood.

"Are you going to call me down?" he roared. "Mean to teach me my job? If
this crowd's a sample of white men, give me Chinamen or niggers! Get on
before you make me sick, you slouching hogs!"

He became more insulting, using terms unbearable even in a construction
camp, but Kermode did not answer him.

"Keep her going, boys," he said.

They made another few yards, gasping, panting, with dripping faces; and
then the work grew easier as they crossed the top of the ascent.

"Push!" said Kermode. "Send her along!"

They looked at him in surprise. It was getting dark, but they could still
see his face, which was quietly resolute; he evidently meant what he
said, and they obeyed him. The big car began to move more freely, and
they waited for an order to slacken the pace; but their leader seemed to
be increasing his exertions and his eyes gleamed.

"He told us to push, boys!" he reminded them. "Rush her ahead!"

Then comprehension dawned on them. The foreman had dropped behind,
satisfied, perhaps, with bullying them, but every man taxed his tired
muscles for a last effort. The wheels turned faster, the men broke into a
run, and none of them was astonished when a warning cry rose behind them.

"Go on!" shouted Kermode. "He'll hold me responsible! You know what to
do!"

Men along the line called to them as they passed, and they answered with
a breathless yell. The car was gathering speed, and they kept it going.
There were further warnings, but they held on, until Kermode raised his
voice harshly:

"A good shove, boys, and let her go!"

They stopped, exhausted, but the dump rolled on with its heavy load of
rock, struck the guard-beams at the end of the track and smashed through
them. Then with a crash and a roar the big steel car plunged down the
slope, plowing up the gravel, hurling out massive stones. A cloud of dust
leaped about it; there was a shrill ringing sound as an axle broke, a
last downward leap, and with a mighty splash the dump came to rest, half
buried, in the muskeg.

Kermode turned with a cheerful smile as the foreman ran up; and the
spectators knew that the time for words had passed. Nobody could remember
who struck the first blow, but Kermode's left hand was injured, and he
clinched as soon as he could. For a few minutes the men reeled about the
track; and then with a tense effort Kermode pushed the foreman off the
bank and went down with him. The gravel was small and slippery, lying at
a steep slope, and they rolled down, still grappling with each other,
until there was a splash below. A few moments later Kermode painfully
climbed the bank alone.

"I guess you had better go down and pull your boss out," he said. "It's
pretty soft in the muskeg; I believe he got his head in, and by the way
he's floundering it looks as if he couldn't see." He paused and waved his
hand in genial farewell. "Good-night, boys! I'm sorry I have to leave
you; but considering everything, I think I'll take the trail."

Then he turned and moved down the track, vanishing into the growing
darkness.

                    *       *       *       *       *

When the tale was finished, Prescott sat a while, smoking thoughtfully.
He imagined that he had struck Jernyngham's trail; all that he had heard
was characteristic of the man.

"Do you know where Kermode went?" he asked.

"No. Guess he might have headed for a camp farther west; I've heard
they're short of men."

Prescott thought this probable and determined to resume his search in the
morning. Presently the gravel train came back and the stream of light
from the head-lamp, blazing along the embankment, rested on the
half-buried dump. Then there was a roar as the plow flung the load off
the cars, and in the silence that followed one of the men got up.

"Morning will come soon enough; I guess it's time for sleep," he said.



CHAPTER XIV

ON THE TRAIL


When Prescott got up the next morning, dawn was breaking across the
muskeg. There was frost in the air, the freight-cars on the side-track
and the roofs of the shacks were white, and a nipping breeze swept
through the camp. It was already filled with sounds of activity--hoarse
voices, heavy footsteps, the tolling of a locomotive bell, and the rattle
of wheels--and Prescott's new friends were eating in a neighboring shed.
Going in, he was supplied with breakfast, and when he left the table the
Englishman joined him.

"Have you made up your mind whether you want a job or not?" he asked.

Prescott said he thought he would push on, and the man looked at him
deprecatingly.

"Well," he said, "we don't want to appear inhospitable, but as things are
run here, you're the guest of the boss, and since he didn't give the
invitation, there might be trouble if he noticed you."

"As it happens, I want to get hold of Kermode as soon as I can," Prescott
answered.

"You shouldn't have much difficulty in finding him. It's hardly possible
for a man of his gifts to go through the country without leaving a plain
trail behind."

Prescott agreed with this. He had not much doubt of Kermode's identity,
and he thought his missing friend would give any acquaintances he made on
his travels cause to remember him.

"There's a construction train starting west in about half an hour,"
resumed the railroad hand. "If you get on board with the boys, it will
look as if you belonged to the gang."

Daylight had come when Prescott clambered up on one of the long flat cars
loaded with rails and ties, and in a few minutes the train started. It
followed what was called a cut-out line, which worked round the muskeg
and back to the main track through a country too difficult for the latter
to traverse; and for a while Prescott's interest was occupied by its
progress. Groups of men in brown overalls were seated on the rails, which
clanged musically in rude harmony with the clatter of the wheels. A sooty
cloud streamed back above them, now and then blotting out the clusters of
figures; the cars swayed and shook, and in view of the roughness of the
line Prescott admired the nerve of the engineer.

The wind that whipped his face was cold and pierced the blanket he had
flung over his shoulders; but the sunshine was growing brighter and the
mist in the hollows was rapidly vanishing. As a rule, the depressions
were swampy, and as they sped across them Prescott could see the huge
locomotive rocking, while the rails, which were spiked to ties thrown
down on brush, sank beneath the weight and sprang up again as the cars
jolted by. As they rushed down tortuous declivities, the cars banged and
canted round the curves, while Prescott held on tight, his feet braced
against a rail. It was better when they joined the graded track, and
toward noon he was given a meal with the others at a camp where a bridge
was being strengthened. When they started again, he lay down in his
blanket where the sunshine fell upon him and the end of the car kept off
the wind, and lighting his pipe became lost in reflection.

It was obvious that he must use every effort to find Jernyngham and he
thought he might succeed in this; but what then? To prove his innocence,
in which she already believed, would not bridge the gulf between him and
Muriel Hurst. It seemed impossible that she should be willing to marry a
working rancher. Yet he knew that he could not overcome his love for her;
there was pleasure as well as pain in remembering her frankness and
gaiety and confidence in him; and the charm of her beauty was strong. He
recalled the crimson of her lips, the glow of warm color in her hair, the
brightness of her smile, and the softness he had once or twice seen in
her violet eyes. Then he drove these thoughts away; to indulge in them
would only make the self-denial he must practise the harder.

He next tried to occupy his mind with Gertrude Jernyngham, for he was
still without a clue to her disconcerting change of mood. She had no
great attraction for him, but he had pitied her and found a certain
pleasure in her society. It was strange that after taking his view of her
brother's fate against the one her father held, she should suddenly turn
upon him in bitter anger. He was hurt at this, particularly as he did not
think the revelation that he had personated Cyril accounted for
everything. However, as it was unavoidable, he thought he could bear Miss
Jernyngham's suspicion.

He was disturbed in his reflections by a sudden jolt of the train as it
stopped at a water-tank. Getting down with the others, he saw a man
standing in the entrance of a half-finished wooden building. The fellow
looked like a mechanic, and his short blue-serge jacket and other details
of his dress suggested that he was an Englishman. On speaking to him,
Prescott learned that the train would be detained a while, because a
locomotive and some empty cars were coming down the line. The man further
mentioned that a number of railroad hands had been engaged in putting up
the building until lately, when they had been sent on somewhere else, and
Prescott inquired if there had been a man among them who answered to his
friend's description.

"There was," said the other dryly, and called to somebody inside: "Here's
a fellow asking for Kermode!"

"Bring him in!" replied a voice, and Prescott entered the building.

It contained a pump and two large steel tanks. Near one of them a man was
doing something with a drill, but he took out his pipe and pointed to a
piece of sacking laid on a beam.

"Sit down and have a smoke," he said. "You have plenty of time. Was
Kermode a friend of yours?"

Prescott looked about the place. He saw that it was a filtering station
for the treatment of water unfit for locomotive use.

"Thanks," he responded. "I knew Kermode pretty well; but I needn't stop
you."

"Oh, don't mind that!" grinned the other. "We're not paid by the piece on
this job. Besides, they've some chisels for us on your train and we
haven't got them yet."

"You're English, aren't you?" Prescott asked. "Are you stopping out
here?"

"Not much!" exclaimed the other with scorn. "What d'you take me for?
There's more in life than whacking rivets and holding the caulker. When a
man has finished his work in this wilderness, what has he to do? There's
no music halls, no nothing; only the dismal prairie that makes your eyes
sore to look at."

Prescott had heard other Englishmen express themselves in a similar
fashion, and he laughed.

"If that's what you think of the country, why did you come here?"

"Big wages," replied the first man, entering the building. "Funny, isn't
it, that when you want good work done you have to send for us? Every
machine-shop in your country's full of labor-saving and ingenious tools,
but when you build bridges with them they fall down, and I've seen tanks
that wouldn't hold water."

"Oh, well," said Prescott, divided between amusement and impatience,
"this isn't to the point. I understand Kermode was here with you?"

"He was. Came in on a construction train, looking for a job, and when we
saw he was from the old country we put him on."

"You put him on? Don't these things rest with the division boss?"

The man grinned.

"You don't understand. We're specialists and get what we ask for. Sent
the boss word we wanted an assistant, and, as we'd picked one up, all he
had to do was to put him on the pay-roll."

"And did Kermode get through his work satisfactorily?"

"For a while. He was a handy man; might have made a boiler-maker if he'd
took to it young. When we had nothing else to keep him busy, he'd cut
tobacco for us and set us laughing with his funny talk."

This was much in keeping with Jernyngham's character. But the man went
on:

"When we'd made him a pretty good hand with the file and drill, he got
Bill to teach him how to caulk. He shaped first-rate, so one day we
thought we'd leave him to it while we went off for a jaunt. Bill had
bought an old shot-gun from a farmer, and we'd seen a lot of wild hens
about."

"It would be close time--you can only shoot them in October; but I
suppose that wouldn't count."

"Not a bit," said the boiler-maker. "All we were afraid of was that a
train might come in with the boss on board; but we chanced it. We told
Kermode he might go round the tank-plate landings--the laps, you
know--with the caulker, and give them a rough tuck in, ready for us to
finish; and then we went off. Well, we didn't shoot any wild hens, though
Bill got some pellets in his leg, and when we came back we both felt
pretty bad when we saw what Kermode had done. Bill couldn't think of
names enough to call him, and he's good at it."

"What had he done?"

"Hammered the inside of the landings down with a gullet you could put
your finger in. Too much energy's your mate's complaint. Nobody could
tell what that man would do when he gets steam up. Understand, we're
boiler-making specialists, sent out on awkward jobs; and he'd put in work
that would disgrace a farmer! For all that, it was Bill's fault for
speaking his mind too free--he got thrown behind the tank."

"I wasn't," contradicted the other. "He jumped at me unexpected when the
spanner hit him, and I fell."

Prescott laughed. Remembering how Jernyngham had driven a truculent
rabble out of Sebastian, he could imagine the scene in the shed; but it
was evident that the boiler-makers bore him no malice.

"After all," said the first one, "when we cooled off and got talking
quiet, he said he'd better go, and we parted friendly."

"Do you know where he went?"

"I don't; we didn't care. We'd had enough of him. First thing was to put
that caulking right, and we spent three or four days driving the landings
down--you can do a lot with good soft steel. Anyhow, when we filled up
the time-sheet showing how far we'd got on with the job, there was a
nasty letter from the engineer. Wanted to know what we'd been playing at
and said he'd have us sent home if we couldn't do better."

While Prescott thanked them for the information a bell began to toll and
there was a rattle of wheels. Hurrying out, he saw a locomotive
approaching the tank and men clambering on to the cars in which he had
traveled. Soon after he joined them, the train rolled out of the
side-track and sped west, clattering and jolting toward the lurid sunset
that burned upon the edge of the plain. Jack-pines and scattered birches
stood out hard and black against the glare, the rails blazed with crimson
fire and faded as the ruddy light changed to cold green, and there was a
sting of frost in the breeze.

They dropped a few men at places where work was going on, stopped for
water, and crawled at slow speed over half-finished bridges and lengths
of roughly graded line. After nightfall it grew bitterly cold and
Prescott, lying on the boards with his blanket over him, shivered, half
asleep. For the most part, darkness shut them in, but every now and then
lights blazed beside the line and voices hailed the engineer as the pace
decreased. Then, while the whistle shrieked, ballast cars on a side-track
and tall iron frameworks slipped by, and they ran out again into the
silent waste. Prescott was conscious of a continuous jolting which shook
him to and fro; he thought he heard a confused altercation among his
companions at the end of the car, and the clang of wheels and the shaking
rails rang in measured cadence in his ears. Then the sounds died away and
he fell into a heavy sleep.

It was noon the next day when he alighted, aching all over, where the
line ran into a deep hollow between fir-clad hills. A stream came
flashing through the gorge and at the mouth of it shacks and tents and
small frame houses straggled up a rise, with a wooden church behind them.
Farther up, the hollow was filled with somber conifers, and the hills
above it ran back, ridge beyond ridge, into the distance. Then, looking
very high and far away, a vast chain of snowy summits was etched against
a sky of softest blue. Those that caught the light gleamed with silvery
brightness, but part of the great range lay in shadow, steeped in varying
hues of ethereal gray. From north to south, as far as the eye could
follow, the serrated line of crag and peak swept on majestically.

Tired as he was, Prescott felt the impressiveness of the spectacle; but
he had other things to think about, and slipping away from the railroad
hands, he turned toward a rude frame hotel which stood among the firs
beside the river. Rows of tall stumps spread about it, farther back lay
rows of logs, diffusing a sweet resinous fragrance. Through a gap between
the towering trunks one looked up the wild, forest-shrouded gorge, and
the litter of old provision cans, general refuse, and discarded boots
could not spoil the beauty of the scene. Prescott asked for a room; and
sitting outside after dinner, he gathered from some men, who were not
working, the story of Kermode's next exploit. Their accounts of it were
terse and somewhat disconnected, but Prescott was afterward able to
amplify them from the narrative of a more cultured person.

                    *       *       *       *       *

Kermode had been unloading rails all day, and he was standing on the
veranda one evening when a supply train from the east was due. It
appeared that he had renewed his wardrobe at the local store and
invariably changed his clothes when his work was finished. This was
looked upon as a very unusual thing, and his companions thought it even
more curious that he had not been known to enter the bar of the hotel;
its proprietor was emphatic on the point. A number of railroad hands
lounged about, attired as usual in their working clothes.

At length the tolling of a bell broke through the silence of the woods
and the train ran in. The rutted street became crowded with unkempt,
thirsty men, and in a few minutes the hotel was filled with their harsh
voices. Last of all appeared a girl, with a very untidy man carrying a
bag beside her. She walked with a limp, and looked jaded and rather
frightened. Her light cloak was thick with dust and locomotive cinders
which clung to the woolly material; her face was hot and anxious, but
attractive.

"Thank you," she said to her companion, opening her purse when they
reached the veranda.

"Shucks! You can put that back," returned the man with an awkward gesture
and then, lifting the bag, carefully replaced the end of a garment that
projected through the bottom. "I'll carry the grip in for you, but you
want to be careful with the thing. Seems to have got busted when the
rails fell on it."

The girl passed through a wire-net door that he opened, and Kermode,
following, waited for several minutes after her companion had rung a
bell. Then a man in a white shirt and smart clothes appeared.

"Can I send a telegram from here to Drummond?" she asked him.

"No; the wires won't run into that district until next year."

"How can I get there?"

"I guess you'll have to hire a team at the livery-stable; take you about
three days to get through."

The girl looked dismayed.

"Then can you give me a room to-night?" she asked.

"Sorry," said the man, "we're full up with the railroad boys; the
waitresses have to camp in the kitchen. Don't know if anybody can take
you in; the track bosses have got all the rooms in town."

He disappeared and the girl sat down, looking very forlorn and
disconsolate. Her voice was English and she had obviously traveled a long
distance in an open car on the supply train. Kermode felt sorry for her.
He took off his hat as he approached.

"If you don't mind waiting a few minutes, I'll see if I can find you
quarters," he said.

She glanced at him suspiciously, with a heightened color, which he
thought a favorable sign, but her eyes grew more confident and when she
agreed he withdrew. As a man of experience who had been a favorite with
women, he was, however, guilty of an error of judgment during his search.
A smart young woman with whom he was on friendly terms managed a cigar
store, and it is possible that she would have taken some trouble to
oblige him; but his request that she should offer shelter to another girl
whose acquaintance he seemed to have made in a most casual manner was
received with marked coldness. Kermode, indeed, felt sorry he had
suggested it when he left the store and set out for a shack belonging to
the widow of a man killed on the line. She was elderly and grim, a strict
Methodist from the east, who earned a pittance by mending the workmen's
clothes. After catechizing Kermode severely, she gave a very qualified
assent; and returning to the hotel, he found the girl anxiously waiting
for him. She looked relieved when he reported his success.

"I had better go at once," she said. "You think Mrs. Jasper will take me
in?"

Kermode picked up the bag.

"To tell the truth, she only promised to have a look at you." Then he
smiled reassuringly. "I've no doubt there'll be no difficulty when she
has done so."

The girl followed him and, as they went slowly up the street, while all
the loungers watched them, she gave Kermode a confused explanation. Her
name was Helen Foster, and she had come from England to join a brother
who had taken up a farm near Drummond, which Prescott had heard was a
remote settlement. Her brother had told her to notify him on her arrival
at Winnipeg and await instructions, but on board the steamer she had met
the wife of a railroad man engaged on the new line who had offered her
company to a point in the west from which Helen could reach her
destination. On arriving at the railroad man's station, he had sent her
on by the supply train.

A little distance up the street, Kermode stopped outside a shed in which
a fellow of unprepossessing appearance was rubbing down a horse. His
character, as Kermode knew, was no better than his looks.

"I must see the liveryman," he told the girl, and when he had sent the
hostler for him the proprietor came out.

"The round-trip to Drummond will take six days, and you'd want a team,"
he said. "I'd have to charge you thirty dollars."

Kermode looked dubious, his companion dismayed. She had three dollars and
a few cents.

"Can you drive this lady there?" Kermode asked.

"I can't. Jim would have to go."

"I think not," said Kermode firmly. "I'll see you about a saddle-horse in
the morning." He turned to the girl: "We'll go along again."

A few minutes later they reached the widow's shack and Kermode waited
some time after his companion was admitted. As she did not come out, he
concluded that Mrs. Jasper was satisfied and returned to the hotel, where
he was freely bantered by the loungers.

"That will do, boys," he said at length. "If there's any more of this
kind of talk, the man who keeps it up will get badly hurt."

They saw that he meant it and, as he was popular, they left him in peace.



CHAPTER XV

MISS FOSTER'S ESCORT


On the morning after he met Helen Foster, Kermode sought a foreman with
whom he was on good terms.

"I want to quit work for a week," he said abruptly.

"Sorry; I can't give you leave, and the boss went down the line
yesterday. If you let up before you see him, it's quite likely he won't
take you back."

"If he doesn't I won't be very grieved. Throwing forty-foot rails about
all day palls on one. But what about my wages up to date?"

"That's a matter for the pay-clerk when he comes along. If you quit
without notice, he'll make trouble."

Kermode considered this; but he had about ten dollars in his pocket and
he was not of provident nature. He decided that something must be left to
chance, though the thought that he might have handled heavy rails for the
contractor's exclusive benefit was strongly distasteful. Walking across
the town, he paid a visit to Miss Foster.

"Can you ride?" he asked her.

"I haven't ridden for years."

"Perhaps you could manage a steady horse which wouldn't go faster than a
walk?" he suggested.

"Yes." Then she hesitated. "But horses are expensive, and I have very
little money left. Somehow, it seems to disappear rapidly in Canada."

"That's an annoying trick it has," Kermode laughed. "However, you had
better start for Drummond this morning, and I'll go with you."

The girl looked dubious. She knew nothing about him, but his manner and
appearance were in his favor, and her position was far from pleasant.
Mrs. Jasper, who had already presented what appeared to be an
extortionate bill, seemed by no means anxious to keep her, and it might
be a long time before she could communicate with her brother. How she was
to hold out until he came to her assistance she could not tell.

"Thank you," she said, gathering her courage; and after promising that he
would be back in an hour, Kermode went away.

He was a man who acted on impulse and, as a rule, the more unusual a
course was the better it pleased him. In spite of her lameness Miss
Foster was attractive, which, perhaps, had its effect, though he was
mainly actuated by compassion and the monotony of his track-laying task.
He did not think the settlement, in which there were very few women, was
the kind of place in which she could comfortably remain, particularly if
her means were exhausted. Presently he met the livery-stable keeper
driving in his buggy and motioned to him to pull up.

"How much will you charge for the hire of the roan, to go to Drummond?"
he asked, and the man named his charge.

"I'll give you eight dollars now and the balance when I come back."

"No sir!" replied the other firmly. "You might fix up to stay there."

"Will an order on the railroad pay-clerk satisfy you?"

"It won't. If you want the horse, you must put the money down."

"Then I can't make the deal."

The man drove on, but Kermode was not to be daunted by such a difficulty;
besides, he had noticed Jim, the hired man, dawdling about the outside of
the stable. When the buggy was out of sight, he accosted him.

"I want the roan in half an hour," he said. "I see you have Mrs. Leaver's
saddle here, and as she's away, you had better put it on. I'm going to
take the lady you saw with me to Drummond."

"S'pose you have seen the boss about it?"

"You must have noticed me talking to him," Kermode replied curtly. "Bring
the horse along to Mrs. Jasper's as soon as you're ready."

Then he returned to the hotel and wrote a note which he gave the
bar-tender, instructing him to let the proprietor of the livery-stable
have it when he came in for dinner. After this he succeeded in borrowing
a small tent, and when he had supplied himself with provisions he hurried
toward the widow's shack. The horse was already there, and when he had
strapped on the folded tent and Miss Foster's bag he helped her to mount,
and set off, carrying his blankets and stores in a pack on his back. He
showed no sign of haste and chatted gaily, though he was anxious to get
out of the town as soon as possible, because he did not know when the
stable-keeper would return.

It was a clear morning; the girl looked brighter after her night's rest,
and the fresh air brought a fine color into her face. Kermode kept her
laughing with his light chatter, but he was nevertheless glad when they
reached the shadow of the pines, where they could travel faster without
attracting attention. After half an hour's rapid walking, he left the
trail, which ran on toward Drummond for a day's journey before it stopped
at a ranch, and turned down into the valley. He thought it might be wiser
to keep to the south of the line he would be expected to take, though
this would entail the crossing of rougher country. Reaching the edge of a
stream, he stopped and regarded it with some concern. It ran fast between
great boulders and looked deep, but as there was no sign of a better
crossing he warned the girl to hold on, and led the horse in.

After a few paces he sank above his knees, and found it hard to keep his
footing and the horse's head upstream. The roan was slipping badly among
the stones and the hem of his companion's skirt was getting wet. He was
pleased to notice that she did not look unduly alarmed.

"We'll be across in another minute or two," he said as cheerfully as he
could.

She smiled at him rather dubiously and at the next step he sank deeper
and dragged the horse round as he clung to the bridle. The roan plunged
savagely and the water rippled about Kermode's waist as he struggled for
a foothold on the slippery stones. With a desperate effort he managed to
find firmer bottom and soon came out on a strip of shingle. Stopping
there for a few moments, he gathered breath while the girl looked about.
They were in the bottom of a deep gorge filled with the sound of running
water and sweet resinous scents. Here the torrent flashed in bright
sunshine; there it flowed, streaked with foam, through dim shadow, while
somber pines towered above it. There was no sound or sign of human life;
they had entered the gates of the wilderness.

"Where do we go next?" the girl asked.

"Up this slope," said Kermode. "Then among the pines, across the hills,
and high plains, into a lonely land. I don't suppose we'll see a house
until we get to Drummond."

"Do you know the way?"

"I don't," Kermode said cheerfully. "I've never been here before, but I'm
accustomed to traveling about the prairie, where trails are scarce. You
don't look daunted."

There was a hint of pleasurable excitement in his companion's laugh.

"Oh," she replied, "adventures appeal to me, and I've never met with any.
For three years since my brother left, I've led a life of drudgery; and
before that, half the pleasures I might have had were denied me by an
accident."

Recognizing a kindred nature, Kermode looked sympathetic. She was
evidently alluding to her lameness, which must prove a heavy handicap to
a girl of the active, sanguine temperament he thought she possessed.

"In a way, it was a great adventure for you to come out here alone over
the new road," he said.

"I thought so last night," she confessed with a smile. "When I reached
the settlement and found I could get no farther, I was really scared.
Now, however, all my fears have gone. I suppose it's the sunshine and
this glorious air."

"Well, we had better get on. I'm afraid you'll have to walk a while."

She let him lift her down, with no sign of prudishness or coquetry, and
he led the horse uphill while she followed. Her attitude pleased him,
because he had no desire for philandering, although he was content to act
as protector and guide. Still, while he adapted his pace to the girl's he
thought about her. Her rather shabby attire and scanty baggage hinted
that she had not been used to affluence; but she showed signs of
possessing a vigorous, well-trained mind, and he decided that she must
have been a teacher.

When they reached the top of the ascent, she mounted and they went on
among scattered clumps of pines and across a tableland as fast as he
could travel, because it seemed prudent to place as long a distance as
possible between them and the settlement. He had left the place with a
valuable horse and saddle which he had not paid for, and he was very
dubious whether the livery-stable keeper would be satisfied with the
promises he had left. Accordingly he only stopped for half an hour at
noon; and evening was near when he helped the girl down and picketed the
horse beside a small birch bluff, and set up the tent.

"There are provisions in my pack and you might lay out supper, but I
don't think we'll make a fire to-night," he said. "I'll be back in about
half an hour; I want to see what lies beyond the top of yonder ridge."

She let him go, and he climbed between slender birches to the summit of a
long rise, where he lay down and lighted his pipe. From his lofty
position he commanded a wide sweep of country--hills whose higher slopes
were still bathed in warm light, valleys filled with cool blue shadow,
straggling ranks of somber pines. The air was sharp and wonderfully
bracing; the wilderness, across which he could wander where he would,
lured him on. Irresponsible and impatient of restraint, as he was, he
delighted in the openness and solitude. For all that, he concentrated his
gaze on one particular strip of bare hillside. At its foot ran the gorge
they had crossed, but it had now grown narrow and precipitous, a deep
chasm wrapped in shadow. He did not think a horse could be led down into
it, which was consoling, because if any pursuit had been attempted, it
would follow the opposite side, near which a trail ran.

After a while his vigilance was rewarded, and he smiled when three very
small figures of mounted men appeared on the hillslope. They were going
back disappointed, and he did not think he had much to fear from them.
Wages were high about the settlement, where everybody was busy, and the
liveryman would, no doubt, find the search too costly to persist in. When
the horsemen had vanished, he returned to the camp, and Miss Foster
glanced at him keenly.

"Supper's quite ready; you have been some time," she said. "What did you
see from the top?"

"Mountains, woods and valleys. They were well worth looking at in the
sunset light."

"And what else? As you live in this country, you didn't go up for the
view."

Kermode saw that she was suspicious, and thought her too intelligent to
be put off with an excuse.

"I'll admit that I wasn't greatly surprised to see three men a long way
off. They were riding back to the settlement and I dare say they were
angry as well as tired."

"Ah!" she said. "You wouldn't light a fire, though you have a package of
tea here and there's a spring near-by. You thought it wouldn't be
prudent?"

"I did think something of the kind; but won't you begin your supper? What
shall I hand you?"

"Wait a little. You haven't told me very much yet." Then her eyes
sparkled with amusement. "Mr. Kermode, I'd better say that my brother
will be responsible for the expenses of this journey. I suppose you
haven't paid for the horse?"

"It's unfortunately true. The trouble was that your brother lives a long
way off, and you led me to believe that your money was running out."

"I have," she said calmly, "fifty cents left."

Kermode began on a sandwich she handed him.

"And I've three or four dollars. You see our difficulty needed a drastic
remedy."

"But you were at work on the railroad. I understand wages are high."

"That's so; but it's some time since the pay car came along."

"But you will get what is due you, when you go back?"

"Have another sandwich," said Kermode. "You have made them very well."
Then seeing that she meant to have an answer, he added: "I'm not going
back."

A little color crept into her face as she looked at him. Kermode had for
a time led a dissipated life, but there had been a change during the last
few months. He had practised abstinence, and in new surroundings found it
easier than he had expected; severe labor had healed and hardened him.
His brown skin was clear, his pale-blue eyes were bright and steady, his
figure was spare and finely lined.

"So," she said, "you sacrificed your wages to assist a stranger?"

He made her a whimsical bow.

"I'd like to think we'll be better acquainted before we part."

"But what will you do now?"

"Oh," he responded lightly, "that's hardly worth talking about. I'll
strike something. So long as you're pretty active there's generally work
to be had, and when it grows monotonous you pull out and go on again."

Miss Foster mused.

"After all," she said, "life must have a good deal to offer a strong man
with the ability to make the most of things. He can set off, when he
likes, in search of new and interesting experiences."

"It has its drawbacks now and then," declared Kermode, smiling. "Anyway,
you needn't imagine you're shut off from everything of the kind. You took
a big risk and faced a startling change when you came out here."

"So I felt. Though I had misgivings, the thought of it drew me."

"I understand. You have courage, the greatest gift, and you felt
circumscribed at home. No doubt, the love of adventure isn't confined to
one sex. It's a longing many of us can't overcome; but it doesn't seem to
meet with general sympathy, and it's apt to get one into difficulties."

"Yes," Miss Foster assented with some bitterness; "particularly a woman."

After that, she went on with her meal while dusk crept up about the
lonely camp. The sky was pale green in the west and the hills stood out
against it, black and calm; not a breath of wind was stirring and it was
very still, except that out of the distance came the murmur of falling
water. When the air grew damper, Kermode brought her a blanket which she
wrapped about her shoulders and they talked on for an hour in a casual
manner. Then he got up.

"You will be quite safe in the tent," he said. "I've found a comfortable
berth in the wood. We'll get off as soon as it's light to-morrow."

He disappeared into the shadows and she noticed that he had left her the
two blankets he had brought from the settlement. She hesitated about
taking them both, but decided not to call him back. A little later she
entered the tent, while Kermode scraped out a hollow in a bank of fallen
leaves and went to sleep.

The grass was white with frost when Miss Foster left the tent in the
morning, but a fire of branches crackled cheerfully near-by and Kermode
was busy with a frying-pan. A light cloud of smoke rose into the still,
cold air, and day was breaking on the eastern horizon.

"This looks pretty good," he said, taking out a greasy cake and several
strips of pork. "If you will make the tea, I'll water the horse."

He was back in a few minutes. His companion enjoyed the simple meal, and
when it was finished they resumed the march. During most of the day their
pathway led over high, treeless ridges which lay in bright sunshine,
though a delicate haze dimmed the encircling hills. Then they dipped to a
valley where they had trouble among the timber and the girl was forced to
dismount. The winter gales had swept the forest and great pines lay piled
in belts of tangled ruin, through which Kermode found it difficult to
lead the horse, while as they floundered over branches and through
crackling brush his companion's limp grew more pronounced. Afterward
there were several rapid creeks to be forded, and Kermode was wet and
Miss Foster very tired when they camped at sunset, in a grove of spruce.
Little was said during the evening meal and soon after it was over the
girl sought her tent, while Kermode found a resting-place among the
withered sprays at the foot of a tree.

They spent the next morning toiling up a long ascent, and from its summit
a prospect of majestic beauty burst upon them. The great peaks had grown
nearer, the air was clear, and the girl sat, rapt, in the saddle, gazing
at the vast snow-fields that glittered with ethereal brilliance, very
high up against a cloudless sky. Then the wonderful blue coloring of the
shadows streaking the white slopes caught her glance, and she found it
unutterably lovely. Kermode, however, had an eye for other things and
carefully searched the wide valley that stretched away beneath them.

"What are you looking for?" the girl asked at length.

"Smoke; I thought I saw a faint streak, but it has gone. I suppose you
didn't notice it?"

"Oh no!" she told him with a smile. "I'm afraid I shouldn't have noticed
such a commonplace thing, even if it had been very plain."

He made a sign of comprehension.

"Then what have you seen?" he asked.

"Unapproachable, stainless whiteness, touched with an unearthly glory
that daunts the mind!" Then her expression changed. "But the sight is too
overpowering to talk about. I would have been more useful had I looked
for smoke, as that would mean a house."

Kermode nodded.

"We have stores enough for another meal or two and had better get on. I
believe I've kept pretty near the line I was told to take, but I'd be
glad to see the first ranch in the Drummond district by supper time."

They went down into the valley, struggling through belts of timber and
clumps of brush, until they reached a broad expanse of grass broken by
small bluffs. After camping for a meal, they pushed on steadily while the
girl grappled with a growing fatigue, until the white peaks faded into
dusky blue and the waste grew shadowy. Kermode had seen no sign of life
and he was getting anxious when, as they approached a bluff, he pulled up
the horse.

"Listen!" he exclaimed. "I think I heard something!"

There was silence for a moment or two, and then he caught a soft drumming
and a rattle that might have been made by wheels.

"Yes," he said. "It's a team and wagon."

The sound grew plainer, and when Kermode shouted, an answer came out of
the gathering darkness. Then a moving shape appeared from behind the
bluff, and a minute or two later the newcomer pulled up his team.

"Well," he said, "what do you want?"

"Tom!" cried the girl excitedly.

The man sprang down, and Kermode needed no explanation. After his
companion had dismounted and run forward, he stood quietly holding the
horse, until she beckoned him.

"This is Mr. Kermode, who brought me here," she said. "My brother, Tom
Foster."

"Indebted to you," responded the man. "I was driving home when you
shouted; my place is about six miles off. If you'll follow, I'll take my
sister in the wagon."

Kermode thought it better that she should explain the reason for their
journey, and he got into the saddle and contented himself with keeping
the vehicle in sight until it stopped at a wooden house that stood near a
sod stable and rude log barn. When he entered the dwelling after putting
up the horse, the lamp was lighted and the stove burning. He saw that
Foster was a young man with a good-humored brown face.

"I understand that I owe you more than I thought at first," he said.
"Helen seems to have been pretty awkwardly situated when you appeared on
the scene. Sit down and smoke while I get supper."

They talked gaily during the meal.

"Is there any means of sending back the horse I brought?" Kermode asked
after a while.

"I've been thinking about that," Foster replied.

"I have a neighbor who is going east on business. He'll strike the new
line where you left it, and he'll be glad to have the horse."

Then they talked about other matters, but when the men sat smoking some
time later, Foster said cordially:

"You'll stay here a while?"

Kermode said that he would remain a few days.

"Where will you make for then?" his host asked. "There's nothing doing
round here except a little cattle-raising."

"For the mountains, I think. I hear the railroad people are busy in the
passes; but I'll try to strike something softer than handling rails."

"I can fix that," Foster declared. "They've been advertising for haulage
tenders--there are a lot of piles and building logs they want brought in.
Now I've two good horses I've not much use for and I'd be glad to let you
have them. You could bring them back when the frost stops work."

"Thanks," said Kermode. "What's your idea of shares?"

The rancher declared that he did not expect a share, but when Kermode
insisted, they arrived at a satisfactory understanding, and soon after
Helen appeared the party broke up.

Kermode spent three or four pleasant days with his new friends, and when
he left the ranch one morning, leading two strong horses, Helen Foster
walked with him some distance up the valley. She had not known him long
enough to recognize his failings, which were plentiful, but his virtues
were obvious, and she knew that she would miss him.

"So you are going out on the trail again," she said. "Where will it lead
you?"

"That," he answered with a gay laugh, "is more than I can tell. No doubt,
to fresh adventures and strange experiences."

"But you know your first stopping-place, the railroad camp. When you have
finished your work there, you could come here again and rest a while."

"No," he said, more gravely; "I'll send your brother his horses, but I
don't think I'll come back. It's nice to feel that we have been pretty
good friends, but it might spoil any pleasant impression I'm leaving if
you saw too much of me. Besides, I'm a wanderer; the long trail beckons."

"It runs through swamps and many rough places into the lonely wilds.
Aren't you afraid of weariness?"

Kermode smiled, falling into her mood.

"You may remember that there are compensations," he said; "glimpses of
glory on the untrodden heights. It's true that one never gets there, but
they lead one on."

"But you can see them from the valley."

"No; the farmer's eyes are fixed on the furrow; he must follow the plow.
His crop and his stock are nearer him; he cannot see past them. The
wanderer's mind is free."

"When you had that glimpse of glory, you turned away and looked for
household smoke."

"There you have me," he laughed. "Inconsistent, wasn't it? But we're only
human: one needs rest and food."

Helen changed the subject.

"Well," she declared, "I'm grateful; and if it's any comfort, you won't
be forgotten."

He stopped the restive horses.

"That's good to hear," he told her. "But the ground is rough ahead and
you have come some way."

"Good-by," she said, and gave him her hand.

He held it for a moment, and then, getting into the saddle, turned and
swung off his hat. After that he rode on into the waste, leading one
horse; and Helen Foster watched him for a while before she went back,
slowly and thoughtfully, to the ranch.



CHAPTER XVI

THE MISSIONARY'S ALLY


On reaching the railroad camp, Kermode was engaged by the contractor to
haul in logs cut in a neighboring forest for constructional purposes. The
line ran into a wild valley, clinging to the rocks that formed one side
of it, with a torrent brawling hoarsely among the stones beneath. Above
rose vast slopes, streaked in some places with small firs, in others
ground to a smooth scarp by sliding snow. Farther back were glaciers and
a chain of glittering peaks.

The mouth of the valley had been laid out as the site of a future town,
but so far it was occupied by rows of tents and rude wooden shacks,
inhabited by the construction gangs. A large proportion of them were
orderly, well-conducted men: industrious immigrants who had seized the
first opportunity for getting work, small farmers attracted by high
wages, skilled artisans. There were, however, some of a rougher type; and
the undesirable element, was, as usual, well represented. On the whole,
the camp was sober, largely because no licenses had been issued, though
this did not prevent men who came up from other points from bringing
liquor in, and the authorities suspected another source of supply.

Kermode had little trouble with his work, which he found profitable, and
he rapidly made friends. Among them was a young Presbyterian missionary
whom he met for the first time on the hillside, engaged on a squared log
with a big jack-plane. He wore knee-boots and a threadbare suit of gray,
while his hat had suffered from exposure to the weather. Kermode stopped
his team near-by and the clergyman looked around.

"If you have a good eye, you might tell me whether this chamfer's running
true," he said.

"You want a bit off here." Kermode laid his finger on the spot. "Except
for that, it's good."

The clergyman sat down and pulled out a tobacco pouch.

"I'll attend to it presently, but I feel I'm entitled to a rest. Take a
smoke; you're not paid on time."

"I'm not sure it would matter if I were." Kermode's eyes twinkled as he
filled his pipe. "An idea of the kind you suggested doesn't go far in a
construction camp, unless, of course, a foreman happens to be about.
However, you made one rash statement, didn't you?"

"I'm afraid I make a good many," replied the clergyman good-humoredly.
"But you are right. It would be very rash to claim all that one was
entitled to; in other words, one's deserts. You're Mr. Kermode, I
believe; you must know my name is Ferguson."

Kermode bowed.

"What are you going to do with this log?" he asked.

"It's to be a door-post in the new church. I wonder if you would be
willing to haul it in?"

Kermode said that he would be glad to do so.

"You encourage me to go a little farther," Ferguson continued. "Building
a church is a costly proposition."

"So I should imagine; I can't speak from experience." Kermode was
generally liberal, and he took out some money. "I think you ought to let
me off with this, as I don't belong to your flock."

"It's a generous contribution; better than the excuse. There are, I may
remind you, many kinds of sheep, and the outward difference is often
marked. Since, you're from the old country, you can take the little
Cheviot and the ponderous Shropshire as examples. You see the drift of
this?"

"That they're all sheep. I've noticed, however, that they wear a good
many different brands."

"Ah, the pity of it! After all, a shepherd has his human weaknesses;
perhaps he's too fond of using his private mark or the stamp of his
guild."

"That," Kermode smiled, "is a handsome admission. Anyway, you have no
rival in shepherding the boys here; and taking us all round, we need it.
But can you raise building funds on the spot?"

"Oh, no! I went to Ontario this summer and spent a month begging from
people who have very little to spare. The response was generous--I've a
carload of shiplap lumber coming out; but you may understand how that
adds to one's responsibility."

"It's obvious. I suppose you know you're up against a strong opposition?"

"That's true, unfortunately." The clergyman looked thoughtful. "There's
one group, the Mitcham crowd, who would like to run me out. The fellow's
piling up money by smuggling in liquor; he and his friends are depraving
the camp. They must be stopped."

"It's a big thing for one man to undertake. It may wreck your mission."

Ferguson's eyes sparkled.

"The risk mustn't count. One can't shut one's eyes to what those fellows
are doing. But I want backers; will you give me your support?"

"That's more than I can consistently promise. However, I'll look on and
see you get fair play. If the opposition hit below the belt, I may take a
hand in."

"Thanks," responded Ferguson, and Kermode went on with his team.

He was favorably impressed by the young missionary and kept the promise
he had made, though it now and then involved him in difficulties with his
comrades. The carload of lumber duly arrived, and with the help of men
who gave their labor after their hard day's work was done, the church was
raised by the light of flaring blast-lamps which the contractor allowed.
By day, Ferguson worked at it alone, and the building steadily grew into
shape; but as the weather got colder trouble broke out in camp. Men
engaged on the higher portions of the line were laid off by snow and
frost, and when the cost of their board ran on, their tempers got short.
There were dismissals, and as working hours diminished, the gangs were
driven harder. Friends began to quarrel over games of chance, and the
violence they displayed was often accounted for by indulgence in smuggled
liquor.

Ferguson, however, was making progress: gaining staunch adherents here,
tacit sympathizers there, though the opposition saw to it that several
had reason to regret their joining him. Kermode took no open part in the
struggle, but watched it interestedly.

At length, one nipping morning, he left his tent with a shiver before it
was light and busied himself about his horses with a lantern in their
rude branch and bark shelter. Winter was beginning in earnest, and a
bitter wind had raged all night, covering gorge and hillside deep with
snow, but this would make his hauling easier when he had broken out a
trail. He plowed through the snow in the darkness, and the threatening
dawn had broken when he came down the hillside with the ends of three or
four big logs trailing behind his jumper-sled. The shacks and tents were
white in the hollow, over which there floated a haze of thin, blue smoke;
the rapid creek that flowed past them showed in leaden-colored streaks
among the ice; and somber pines rose in harsh distinctness from the
hillside.

Then the half-covered frame of the church caught Kermode's eye. Something
was wrong with it. The skeleton tower looked out of the perpendicular;
and on his second glance its inclination seemed to have increased. The
snow, however, was clogging the front of his sled and he set to work to
scrape it off. While he was thus engaged there was a sharp, ripping
sound, and then a heavy crash, and swinging around he saw that the tower
had collapsed. Where it had stood lay a pile of broken timber, and planks
and beams were strewn about the snow.

Kermode urged his team downhill, and when a group of men came running up
to meet him, he recognized Ferguson some distance in front of them. The
man's face showed how heavy the blow had been.

"It looks bad; I'm very sorry," said Kermode when they reached the
wrecked building.

"I'm afraid we can't get things straight until spring and I don't know
how I'll raise the money then," declared Ferguson. "A good deal of the
lumber seems destroyed, and I've levied pretty heavily on every friend
I've got." Then he tried to assume a philosophic tone. "Well, I suppose
this is the result of impatience; there were spikes I didn't put in
because I couldn't wait for them and some tenons were badly cut. It blew
hard last night and there must have been a big weight of snow on the new
shingling."

"I don't think you're right," Kermode said dryly, and turned to a
bridge-carpenter who stood near-by. "What's your idea?"

"The thrust of what roof they'd got up wouldn't come on the beams that
gave," rejoined the man. "There's something here I don't catch on to."

"Just so," said Kermode. "Suppose you take a look at the king-posts and
stringers. We'll clear this fallen lumber out of the way, boys."

They set to work, and in an hour the sound and damaged timber had been
sorted into piles. Then, when the foundations were exposed, Kermode and
the carpenter examined a socket in which a broken piece of wood remained.

"This has been a blamed bad tenon," the mechanic remarked. "The shoulders
weren't butted home."

"I'm afraid that's true; I made it," Ferguson admitted; but Kermode,
laying his finger on the rent wood, looked up at his companion.

"For all that, should it have given way as it has done?"

"I'll tell you better when we find the beam it belonged to."

It took them some time; and then the carpenter turned to Ferguson.

"You marked this tenon off before you cut it. Did you run the saw past
your line?"

"No," said Ferguson with a start; "that's certain. I dressed up to the
mark afterward with a chisel."

The carpenter looked at Kermode meaningly.

"Guess you're right. See here"--he indicated the broken stump--"there's a
saw-cut running well inside his mark. Now that tenon was a bit too small,
anyway, and when they'd notched her, she hadn't wood enough left to hold
up the weight."

There were exclamations from the others standing round in the snow, but
Kermode glanced at Ferguson. His face grew darkly red, but with an effort
he controlled his anger.

"Who can have done this thing?" he asked.

"There's no direct evidence to show, but I've my suspicions," Kermode
said. "It's dangerous to interfere with people's business, particularly
when it isn't quite legitimate. You must have known you ran a risk."

"Do you think I should have let that stop me?" Ferguson asked with
sparkling eyes.

"That's a matter of opinion," Kermode rejoined. "Perhaps you had better
wait and think the thing over when you cool off. I've some logs to haul
in."

He moved off with his team and went on with his work all day, but when
night came he attended, by special invitation, a meeting held in a tent
that flapped and strained in the boisterous wind. Half a dozen men were
present, steady and rather grim toilers with saw and shovel, and though
two or three had been born in Ontario, all were of Scottish extraction.
Their hard faces wore a singularly resolute expression when Kermode
entered.

"Boys," he said, "before we begin I'd better mention that taking a part
in a church assembly is a new thing to me."

One or two of them frowned at this: his levity was not in keeping with
the occasion.

"Ye're here, and we'll listen to your opinion, if ye hae one," said their
leader. "Jock is for raiding Mitcham's shack and firing him and the other
scoundrel out of camp."

"I see objections. Mitcham has a good many friends, and if he held you
off, you'd have made a row for nothing, besides compromising Mr.
Ferguson."

"There's reason in that," another remarked.

"Then," continued Kermode, "you can't connect Mitcham with the wrecking
of your church."

"I'm thinking the connection's plain enough for us. Weel, we ken----"

"Knowing a thing is not sufficient; you want proof, and if you go ahead
without it, you'll put yourselves in the wrong. This is not the time to
alienate popular sympathy."

"Weel," said the leader, "hae ye a plan?"

Kermode lighted his pipe and after a few moments answered thoughtfully:

"I hear that Mitcham, Long Bill, and Libby will take the trail to-morrow
with Bill's team and sled--he's laid off work because of the snow. They
were away three or four days once or twice before, and when they came
back a number of the boys got on a high-class jag and there was trouble
in camp. I dare say you can put the things together?"

"Sure," declared one who had not spoken yet. "Where do we butt in?"

"This is my suggestion--half a dozen picked men will meet Mitcham coming
home and seize the sled. If its load is what I suspect, somebody will
ride off for Sergeant Inglis on my horse, and you'll have a guard ready
to bring the sled to camp and hold the liquor until the police arrive.
I'm inclined to think you can leave the rest to them."

A harsh smile crept into the faces of the listeners, and their leader
nodded gravely.

"We cannot do better. It will work."

The plan was duly put into execution, and one bitter night Kermode and
several others plodded up a frozen creek. It had been snowing hard for
the last few hours and he could scarcely see his companions through the
driving flakes, while the wail of the wind in the pines above drowned the
soft sound of their footsteps. Kermode was tired and very cold, and could
not have explained clearly what had induced him to accompany the
expedition. Adventure, however, always appealed to him, and he was sorry
for Ferguson, who had, he thought, been very shabbily treated. Kermode
had a fellow-feeling for anybody in difficulties.

After a while the snow ceased and they could dimly see the dark pines
climbing the steep banks that shut them in. It was obvious that if
Mitcham's party had entered the deep hollow, they could not well get out
of it. The expedition had only to go on or wait until it met them; but
Kermode did not envy the man whose duty it would be to ride across the
open waste to the lonely post where Sergeant Inglis might be found.
Resting, however, was out of the question. They must move to keep from
freezing, and though the snow began again, they plodded on, with heads
lowered to meet the blast that drove the stinging flakes into their
faces.

At length the leader stopped and raised his hand. Standing still, they
heard a muffled sound that might have been made by the fall of hoofs
ahead, and they hastily turned toward a clump of spruce. The trees
concealed them and the sound grew nearer, until they could see the dim
shapes of men and horses moving through the driving flakes. Then they
left cover and spread out across the creek. The team stopped and an angry
voice came out of the snow:

"What's this? What do you want?"

"Yon sled and its load," the leader concisely replied.

"Stand clear!" cried the voice. "Go right ahead, Bill!"

A man sprang forward and seized the near horse's head.

"Stop where you are!" he cried. "We're not looking for trouble, but we
want the sled!"

Two others ran out from behind the horses, but the leader of the
expedition raised his hand.

"It's six to three, Mitcham, and that's long odds. Ye'll get sled and
team when ye claim them in camp. Lift a fist and ye'll give the boys the
excuse they're wearying for. I'll ask nothing better."

Mitcham turned to his companions.

"They've got us, boys. Leave them to it," he said.

"Lead the horses, Kermode," directed one of the party, and the team moved
on again while the leader, walking beside the sled, hastily examined its
load. Several small cases lay beneath a tarpaulin.

What became of Mitcham and his friends did not appear, for they were left
behind in the snow; but the night grew wilder and the cold more biting.
For minutes together they could see nothing through the cloud of flakes
that drove furiously past them; it was hard to urge the tired horses
forward through the deeper drifts and all were thankful when they came to
reaches which the savage wind had swept almost clear. They could not,
however, leave the creek without their knowing it, and they had a fringe
of willows, into which they stumbled now and then, as guide. When, at
length, the gorge opened out, there was a high ridge to be crossed, and
they had cause to remember the ascent. The route led up through belts of
brush and between scattered pines, and leaving it inadvertently every now
and then, they got entangled among the scrub. Two of them plodded at the
stumbling horses' heads, four pushed the sled, and at the top of every
steeper slope every one stopped and gasped for breath. It was now near
dawn and they had marched all night after a day of heavy toil.

The ascent made, they went down the hill at an awkward run, the horses
slipping with the sled pressing on them, colliding with small trees,
smashing through matted brush, until they heard a hail. It was answered
and another body of men appeared and escorted them into camp. Drowsy
voices called to them and here and there a man looked out as they passed
the lines of shacks and tents, but no word was spoken until they reached
their leader's cabin. The cases were carried in and while two of the
company took the horses away the others were given hot coffee and
afterward sat down to wait for morning. It was very cold and icy draughts
crept in, but they were undisturbed until daybreak, when there was a cry
outside:

"Here's Mitcham wanting to talk to you!"

A weary man, white with snow, entered and looked eagerly round the shack.

"I've come for those cases," he said, pointing to the pile.

"What right have you to them?" Kermode inquired.

"What right?" cried the other. "They're my property; I bought them!"

Kermode smiled.

"You hear that; you'll remember it, boys."

Mitcham's face grew dark as he saw the trap he had fallen into.

"Anyhow, I want them," he muttered. "You won't be wise to keep them."

"Now see here," said one of the party. "We have a dozen men round this
shack, and if there's trouble, we have only to call for more. Every boy
knows what to do. Strikes me it wouldn't pay you to bring your hobos
along."

Mitcham looked at the others and saw that they were resolute. His enemies
were masters of the situation. Bluster and threats would not serve him;
but it was Kermode's amusement which caused him the most uneasiness.

"Well," he said, "keep them while you can. You're going to be sorry for
this!"

He went out and several of the men broke into a laugh. They had, however,
a problem to face later, when they received a sharp message from the
foreman demanding their immediate return to work. All were willing to
lose a day's pay, but the prompt dismissal which would follow
disobedience was a more serious matter.

"The trouble is that if we leave the shack without a guard, Mitcham will
steal his liquor back," declared one.

"I think I had better see Mr. Morgan," Kermode suggested, and they let
him go.

The young engineer he interviewed listened with a thoughtful air to the
request that several of the workmen should be given a day's leave.

"It would be awkward to let these fellows quit," the engineer protested.

"If you would tell the foreman to send the boys I'll mention ahead up the
track, so they couldn't get back before evening, and give two of us a day
off, it would get over the difficulty."

When he heard the names the engineer looked hard at Kermode.

"Has this request any connection with the collapse of Mr. Ferguson's
church?"

"It has, indirectly. I'm sorry I can't give you an explanation."

"Try to understand how I'm situated. I may have my sympathies, but I
can't be a partizan; my business is to see you do your work. Suppose I do
as you suggest, will it make any trouble in the camp? I want a straight
answer."

"No," said Kermode. "I give you my word that what we mean to do will lead
to quietness and good order."

"Then I'll have the boys you mentioned sent up the track; they're a crowd
I've had my eye on. One of your friends and you can lie off."

Kermode thanked him and went back to the shack, where he kept watch with
the leader of the Presbyterians until two police troopers rode up late in
the afternoon. They opened the cases and heard Kermode's story.

"You declare the man Mitcham claimed this liquor as his property?"
Sergeant Inglis asked.

"He said he'd bought it. We're ready to swear to that, and we can give
you the names of several more who heard him."

"I'll take them down. Where's Mitcham?"

They told him and he closed his notebook.

"You may be sent for from Edmonton later. Don't let these cases out of
your sight until Private Cooper calls for them."

He went out and came back later with the trooper and a teamster they had
hired, who loaded the cases on a sled. Sergeant Inglis, however, sat
still in his saddle, with a watchful eye on Mitcham and another man who
stood, handcuffed, at his horse's side. When the police had ridden off
with their prisoners, Morgan, the engineer, sent for Kermode.

"I've seen the sergeant and he gave me an outline of the affair," he
said. "It was cleverly thought out--I suppose the idea was yours?"

"I can't deny it," returned Kermode modestly.

"Well," said the other, "see that your friends and you begin work as
usual to-morrow."

During the next two weeks Ferguson made some progress in repairing the
damage to his church. He found several helpers, now that his strongest
opponent had been removed. The weather, however, grew more severe and as
the frost interfered with operations, men were freely dismissed. One day
Morgan and the contractor's clerk sat talking in the latter's office.

"I'll have to cut out two or three teams," he said. "I don't know whom I
ought to fire."

"Kermode," Morgan advised promptly.

The clerk looked surprised.

"Foreman reports him as a pretty good teamster. He strikes me as smart
and capable," he objected.

"He is. In fact, that's the trouble. I like the man, but you had better
get rid of him."

"You're giving me a curious reason."

Morgan smiled.

"I expect our plans for the winter may lead to some trouble with the
boys; such work as we can carry on is going to be severe. Now do you
think it prudent to provide them with a highly intelligent leader?"

"Guess you're right," the clerk agreed. "He'll have to go, though I'm
sorry to part with him."

"I'll send him to another job nearer the coast," said Morgan.

The next day Kermode was informed of this decision and took it
good-humoredly. Before leaving the camp he spent an evening with
Ferguson, who expressed keen regret at his departure.

"I have an idea that I may have got you into trouble, and it hurts me,"
the minister said.

Kermode laughed in a reassuring manner.

"It's likely that you're wrong; but I'm not the first man who has found a
righteous cause unprofitable."

"That," Ferguson returned gravely, "is in one sense very true."

They sat up late, talking; and the next morning Kermode found means of
sending Foster's horses back, and then resumed his journey.



CHAPTER XVII

THE PASSAGE OF THE MOUNTAINS


Kermode had been gone a fortnight when Prescott reached the camp and
heard from Ferguson and others of his latest exploit. He smiled as he
listened to their stories, but that he should find people willing to talk
about the man did not surprise him. Kermode was not likely to pass
unnoticed: his talents were of a kind that seized attention. Where he
went there was laughter and sometimes strife; he had a trick of winning
warm attachment, and even where his departure was not regretted he was
remembered.

Ferguson insisted on taking Prescott in, for his comrade's sake, and late
one evening he sat talking with him beside the stove. His house was
rudely put together, shingle-roofed and walled with shiplap boards that
gave out strong resinous odors. The joints were not tight and stinging
draughts crept in. Deep snow lay about the camp and the frost was keen.

"I can't venture to predict Kermode's movements," said the clergyman. "It
was his intention to make for a camp half-way to the coast, but he may
change his mind long before he gets there."

"Yes," Prescott replied; "that's the kind of man he is."

Ferguson smiled.

"You and Kermode strike me as differing in many ways; yet you seem
strongly attached to him."

"That's true," Prescott assented. "I can't see that I owe him anything,
and he once led me into a piece of foolishness that nobody but himself
could have thought of. I knew the thing was crazy, but I did it when he
urged me, and I've regretted it ever since. Still, when I meet the fellow
I expect I shan't have a word of blame for him."

"He's a man I had a strong liking for, though on many matters our points
of view were opposite. However, I dare say it's something to be thankful
for that we're not all made alike."

"Kermode's unique," Prescott explained. "I'm of the plodding kind and I
find that consequences catch me up. Kermode's different: he plunges into
recklessness and the penalty falls on somebody else."

"You don't mean by his connivance?"

"Never! It's the last thing I meant. Kermode never shirks. Bring a thing
home to him and he'll face it, but somehow he generally escapes. There's
the matter I mentioned--he and I played a fool trick, and while he
rambles about the country, flinging a foreman down an embankment,
assisting a lady in distress, posing as a temperance reformer, in his
usual inconsequent way, I'm deep in trouble, and so are other people who
don't deserve it. So far I've always reached the scene of his latest
exploit soon after he had left; but the man must be found."

Ferguson laughed.

"What are you going to do about it?"

"Follow him to the Pacific, if necessary. As the country isn't opened up,
he can't get off the line."

"I'm afraid you're going to have a very rough journey. The track's
surveyed and blazed; they're working at it in sections, but there are big
gaps where nothing has been done yet, and they have been withdrawing a
large number of men. Crossing the mountains is a tough proposition in the
winter."

"Kermode didn't seem afraid of it."

"He started two weeks ago, when there had been less snow. You'll find it
difficult to get through the passes now."

"Anyway," declared Prescott, "I have to get through."

Ferguson pondered the simple answer. It was, he thought, typical of the
man, and the contrast between him and his friend became more forcible.
Kermode exercised a curious charm. His gay, careless nature made him
excellent company, and he had a strain of somewhat eccentric genius; but
he was irresponsible and erratic, one could not depend on him. The
Canadian was of different temperament: slower, less subject to impulse,
but more stubborn and more consistent. When dealing with him one would
know what to expect. He would reason out a purpose and then unwaveringly
adhere to it.

"Well," the clergyman said, "you may have to cross a big province; and
though it's warmer as you get down to the coast, the weather's often
nearly arctic among the ranges, while it's only here and there that
you'll have a chance to find shelter. It's a trip that's not to be
undertaken rashly. You'll need a fur coat, among other things, and I
think I can get you one. You had better take a couple of days' rest so as
to start fresh. And now it's time for bed."

Prescott spent the next day with him and left the camp at daybreak on the
second morning. He wore a long coat, from which the fur had peeled in
patches, and carried a heavy pack besides a small ax. His boots were
dilapidated, but he had been unable to replace them. There was sharp
frost and when he boarded a construction train he looked back at the camp
with keen regret; he shrank from the grim wilds ahead. A haze of smoke
hung over the clustering shacks, lights still blinked among them, and
already the nipping air was filled with sounds of activity. Then the
locomotive shrieked and he turned his face toward the lonely white hills
as the cars moved forward with a jerk. It was bitterly cold, though he
lay down out of the wind behind the load of rails, where hot cinders
rattled about him and now and then stung his face.

At noon the train stopped. Alighting with cramped limbs, Prescott saw
that the rails went no farther. A few shacks stood forlornly upon the
hillside, a frozen river wound like a white riband through the gorge
beneath, and ahead lay a sharply rising waste of rock and snow. His path
led across it, and after a word or two with the men on the line he began
his journey, breaking through the thin, frozen crust. The sounds behind
him grew fainter and ceased; the trail of dingy smoke which had followed
him melted away, and he was alone in the wilderness. His course was
marked, however, by a pile of stones here, a blazed tree there, and he
plodded on all day. When night came he found a hollow free from snow
beneath a clump of juniper, and lay awake, shivering under his blankets.
White peaks and snow-fields were wrapped in deathly silence: there was
not even the howl of a prowling wolf or the splash of falling water.

Rising at dawn, almost too cold to move, he could find no dry wood to
make a fire and had serious trouble in getting on his frozen boots; and
after a hurried meal he set out again. It was some time before he felt
moderately warm, but with a short rest at noon, he held on until evening
was near, when he camped in a deep rift among the rocks filled with small
firs. Here he found dry branches, and made his supper, sitting between a
sheltering stone and a welcome fire. Soon afterward, he lay down and
slept until the piercing cold awakened him near dawn. The fire had burned
out to a few red embers; he had some trouble in stirring it into life,
and it was bright daylight when he resumed his journey.

He was too tired and generally too cold to retain any clear impression of
the next few days' march. There were ranks of peaks above, glittering at
times against an intensely blue sky, but more often veiled in leaden
cloud, while rolling vapor hid their lower slopes. He skirted tremendous
gorges, looked up great hollows filled with climbing trees, followed
winding valleys, and at length limped into sight of a lonely camp at the
foot of a crag. The light was fading when he reached it, though a lurid
sunset glowed behind the black firs on the crest of a ridge, and the
place had a desolate look. Most of the shacks were empty, there were
rings of branches with a litter of old cans about them where tents had
been pitched, but a few toiling figures were scattered about a strip of
track. It was comforting to see them, but Prescott was too jaded to
notice what they were doing.

Entering a shanty, roughly built of ties and galvanized iron, he found a
stove burning, and a Chinaman who told him that supper would be ready
soon. After a while the men came in and, asking very few questions, gave
him a share of their meal; then he was shown a rude bed of fir branches
and swamp hay and told he could sleep there. Prescott lay down and
lighted his pipe and then looked about for a while. The place was dimly
lighted and filled with rank tobacco smoke, through which he saw the
blurred figures of his new companions. Some of them were playing cards
under a lamp, some were disputing in harsh voices, and now and then there
was a burst of laughter. Once or twice a man went out and an icy draught
swept through the shed, but except for that it was delightfully warm.
Soon Prescott's pipe dropped from his hand and, failing in a drowsy
attempt to find it, he went to sleep.

At breakfast the next morning he learned that a man answering Kermode's
description had spent a night there eight or nine days ago. That showed
that he was gaining, and he forced his pace all day. At sunset he made a
fire beside a frozen lake, and after three or four days of arduous toil
reached another camp. From the few men remaining there he learned that
Kermode had left the spot a week earlier with a companion whose work had
been interfered with by the frost. It was understood that they intended
to examine a mineral vein the railroad hand had discovered in a valley
some distance off, and when Prescott had ascertained where it lay he set
off on their trail. The camp was well supplied with provisions and he
bought a quantity.

He felt more cheerful now. It looked as if the end of his long search
were near, since there was every reason to believe he would join the men
before they could test the claim. On the second day he laboriously
ascended a steep slope leading out of a valley he had followed, a broken
line of footprints running upward in front of him. This seemed to
indicate that the great ridge ahead could be crossed, though when he
glanced at the ramparts of dark rock the task looked insuperable.
Prescott knew nothing of mountaineering, but he judged that Kermode's
companion must be accustomed to the ranges.

The slope grew sharper, there seemed to be an unbroken wall of rock
ahead; but, climbing higher, Prescott saw a small smooth track running up
the barrier. It was obviously a gully filled with snow and its steepness
suggested that the ascent of it might prove beyond his powers; but the
footprints led on to where it began. After following them to the spot,
Prescott sat down on a stone to gather breath. He looked upward with a
sinking heart. The hollow was deep and narrow--a cleft in the vast ridge
of rock, which was glazed with ice. In places it looked precipitous, but
there seemed to be no way of working round the flank of the mountain.
Then Prescott noticed that the snow was pitted with small holes, about
two feet apart, from which he concluded that the prospectors had carried
a grubhoe, a tool resembling a mountaineer's ice-ax. He might get up by
using these footholds.

Before starting he carefully adjusted his pack, and slung the ax where it
seemed least likely to do him an injury. Then he found that by laying his
mittened hands in the holes above he could steady himself while he found
a fresh support for his feet, and for a while he made progress, though
the labor of carrying up his load became intense. Coming to a fang of
rock which offered a precarious seat, he stopped and wondered how he was
to get up the rest of the way. It seemed a vast distance to the top, and
he was already distressed by a form of exertion to which he was
unaccustomed. Bright sunshine rested on the jagged ridge above, but the
gully lay in shadow; and, growing cold, the man went on again. The next
few minutes passed uneventfully, except that he made a dangerous slip;
and then a stone rushed past him and he heard a sharp crash below. This
was a risk he had not counted on. Looking up anxiously, he saw some snow
coming down. There was not much of it, but it was traveling ominously
fast and he was right in its path. He dared not leave the steps to seek
the shelter of the rocks. Driving in his feet to secure a better hold; he
waited, wondering whether he would be swept away and hurled down to the
bottom with broken bones.

The sliding snow was close upon him; he saw that it was spinning and of a
flat round shape, not a ball as he had expected, and then, while he dug
in his hands and stiffened every muscle to resist the shock, he received
a heavy blow on his lowered shoulder and a wet mass was flung violently
into his face. He held on, however, and without looking around, heard the
snow rush on down the gully beneath him. After he had climbed a few
yards, it seemed possible to reach a projecting spur of rock, and when he
had carefully kicked out a hold for one foot he made the attempt. He had
scarcely reached the shelter of the rock when there was a sharp crash
above and a great stone leaped by.

Prescott found that he could maintain his position fairly comfortably and
he lighted his pipe and sat still to rest and consider, while the
downward rush of another stone gave him food for thought. He believed he
was half-way up, and after the exertions he had made, it was unthinkable
that he should go back and seek another route; besides, he doubted
whether he could get down without slipping. It seemed quite as perilous
to go on, until he reasoned from the state of the snow, which was not
deeply scored, that the stones did not come down continuously. Perhaps
the warmth of the sun, helped by a soft chinook wind that had set in had
loosened them; but the light was fading off part of the ridge and if he
waited a while, the discharge might cease. The trouble was that he was
getting very cold. He smoked another pipe, and as he heard no further
crashes, he cautiously ventured out and regained the deepest part of the
gully. His joints ached, his muscles felt sore, but there was a break in
the rocks some distance higher up and he determined to climb to it.

The effort was severe, but he reached the spot, breathless, and carefully
looked about. The sunshine had now vanished from the crest of the rocks
and he supposed the stones would soon freeze fast again, but there would
be only another hour or two of daylight and he must gain a place of
safety before it grew dark. An incautious movement would precipitate him
from his insecure refuge and he could not contemplate his remaining there
through the night. Then he grew angry with Kermode.

It was difficult to believe this was the easiest way into the valley
where the railroad man had made his discovery; the latter, being used to
the ranges, had, no doubt, taken it to shorten the distance, and Kermode
should have objected. Kermode, however, never paused to think; he
cheerfully plunged into the first folly that appealed to him and left
other people to bear the consequences. Then, having rested, Prescott saw
that there were weak points in this reasoning, since the man he was
following must have climbed the slope, and, what was more, that his
irritation led to no result. He could consider such matters when he had
reached the summit, and in order to do so, he must get on at once.

No more stones came down, but after Prescott had gone some distance a
fresh difficulty confronted him. The gully was getting steeper, and the
holes had disappeared; he supposed that the snow had softened in the
sunshine earlier in the day and slipping down had filled up the recesses.
He had, however, discovered that one could kick through the hard crust
and make a hole to stand in, provided it were done carefully, and he went
up by this means, wondering whether his boots would hold out until he
reached the top, and stopping every few yards for breath. It was
exhausting work after a long march and he was heavily loaded, but it
could not be shirked, and he crawled up, watching the distance shorten
foot by foot. Once a step broke away and he slid back a yard before he
brought up with hands buried deep in the snow and the perspiration
streaming from him in his terror. Still, he was slowly mounting; and at
last, worn out and breathless, he reached the narrow ridge of crag and
looked down with keen relief or a long slope to a valley filled with
forest.

In front there was a glorious vista of peaks that shone in the evening
light, but Prescott was in no mood to think of them. He must get down to
the trees, where he could camp in comfort, before darkness fell. Rising
after a few minutes' rest, he made the descent and, as dusk crept round
him, lighted his fire among the sheltering trunks.

The next day he followed the valley through thick timber and withered
underbrush which tore his clothes and delayed his march. There were
fallen trunks with spreading branches to be scrambled over, and tangles
of thorny canes, but he was cheered by signs that somebody had passed on
ahead of him not long before. Later, the forest died out and the bottom
of the hollow was strewn with sharp-edged stones, which threatened to
tear his worn boots from his feet, and which added seriously to his toil.
It was, however, impossible that the prospectors had climbed the crags
that hemmed him in, and believing they could not be far in front of him,
he held on until late in the afternoon.

At length he came to a wider stretch, out of which a ravine that looked
accessible led, but he gave little thought to it. There were a few small
trees about and one of them had recently been felled. He could see the
white chips and the place where a fire had burned. A meat-can lay near-by
and when Prescott picked it up he found the few fragments adhering to it
quite fresh. The men he sought had camped there, but he began to grow
anxious, for he could see no signs of them. Laying down his load, he made
a hasty examination of the locality and found a spot where the face of a
crag was marked by a streak of different material. It was rent in one
place, heavy fragments were scattered about, and Prescott saw that they
had been blown out with giant-powder.

For a few minutes he eagerly proceeded with his search, but he could find
no blankets or provision cache, and when he saw footprints leading toward
the ravine the truth dawned on him. The prospectors had left the spot and
were not coming back; once more he had arrived too late. It was a cruel
disappointment and he sat down in black dejection, looking heavily about.
The high summits were wrapped in leaden cloud, the lower rocks towered
above him, rugged and forbidding, and a mournful wind wailed through the
gorge.

With an effort he forced himself to think. He had provisions for only a
day or two; one of the prospectors was obviously an expert mountaineer,
which led Prescott to believe that they would travel faster than he was
capable of doing. It would be the height of rashness to push on farther
into the wilds without a guide, and the first fall of snow would blot out
any trail the others might have left. Reason warned him that he must turn
back; but it was unthinkable that he should descend the gully. He
determined to climb the ravine on the morrow.

Growing cold, he fell to work with the ax, and soon had a fire burning in
a hollow among the rocks.



CHAPTER XVIII

DEFEAT


The next morning Prescott awakened in the dark and set to work,
shivering, to rekindle his fire. Day broke with a transitory brightness
while he had breakfast and soon afterward he entered the ravine. It was
steep, and filled with ice in places, but freshly dislodged stones and
scratches on the rocks showed him that the prospectors had gone that way.
The ascent was difficult: it cost him a tense effort now and then to gain
a slippery ledge or to scramble up a slab, and he had frequently to stop
and consider how he could best force a passage.

He was tired and damp with perspiration when he reached the top and met
an icy wind that swept across a tableland. The high plain was strewn with
rocky fragments, the peaks above were lost in vapor, but he saw by a
glance at the watery sun that it ran roughly west; and footprints led
across it with an inclination toward the south. This was comforting,
because the line of track ran to the south, and if he could strike that,
it would serve as a guide; moreover it confirmed Prescott's conclusion
that Kermode, who had evidently found the mineral vein worthless, would
hold on toward the sea. He was not the man to haunt familiar ground when
a wide, newly opened country lay before him.

Then a few stinging flakes struck Prescott's face, the pale sunshine was
blotted out, and a savage blast drove him back to the shelter of the
ravine. For an hour he sat, shivering, among the rocks while the gorge
was swept by snow. When it ceased he came out; but there was no sign of a
footprint now and, to make things worse, the new snow was soft. But he
plodded through it, heading southwest, so as to strike the track again, a
little farther on.

He spent the day on the high ground; at times toilsomely picking a way
across banks of stones buried in snow that hid the dangerous gaps between
them. Now and then he sank through the treacherous covering and plunged
into a hollow, at the risk of breaking his leg; but walking was easier
between these tracts, and when evening came he reached a few large fallen
rocks, among which he camped and lay awake, half frozen, without a fire.
Starting as soon as day broke, he felt that he must make the surveyed
line before dark. He was growing afraid of the white desolation and
wanted to get into touch with something that would lead him to the haunts
of men.

It was afternoon when he came to a great dip. A valley lay beneath him
with a frozen river winding through its depths, and he felt convinced
that it was one the track would follow. The trouble, however, was to get
down, for the hillside fell away in a vast scarp, broken here and there
by dark crags that showed through the snow. There was a belt of timber a
long way down, but the slope was too steep for him to reach it, and he
walked along the summit in search of a spot from which the descent could
be made, until he came to a long declivity that looked a little less
sharp. Then, strapping his fur coat on his pack, he kicked a step in the
snow and began to climb down, facing inward toward the bank.

For a while, he made steady progress; and then the snow grew harder. Its
surface had melted and frozen again, resulting in a crust that could
scarcely be penetrated. He thought about his ax, but he could not see how
he could use it in cutting steps beneath him without falling down, and
this was not the place for hazardous experiments. He went on very
cautiously, finding the work of kicking hollows for his feet extremely
severe, until, when he supposed that half an hour had passed, he drove
his toes in deep and lay down to rest. On looking up, he seemed to have
come a very short distance, and when he glanced below he felt appalled at
the length of the declivity he must still creep down. His limbs ached;
his mittens were worn and his hands badly numbed; and one boot was coming
to pieces.

The descent, however, must be continued, and he began to move again, very
warily. Presently he found he could not break through the crust with his
foot. Clinging hard to his handhold, he lowered himself to feel for a
softer spot. His toe went in a little way; he ventured to trust to the
slight support; but as he did so the treacherous snow broke beneath him.
For a few tense moments his numbed fingers held him to the slope. He
tried in terror to kick another hole; the attempt failed, his hands
slipped away, and he began to slide downward, the snow driving up into
his face. The pace grew rapidly faster; he could not keep himself
straight, but slid on his side; then his pack caught something that
turned him farther round so that his head was lowest. He could see
nothing; his pace grew frightful, and he drove on, unable to make the
least effort.

How long this continued he had no idea. It was a terrifying experience;
but at length, to his dull astonishment, his speed slackened suddenly and
he stopped. He found that he was whole in limb, and on getting up
cautiously he was forced to the conclusion that he was little the worse
for his rapid descent. His clothes were packed with snow, but it was
easily shaken out. After recovering a little, he saw that he had brought
up on a slope that fell less sharply and that it would be possible to
walk down it without much trouble. The timber was close ahead, and he
smiled as he remembered his horror; it looked as if he might have made
the descent uninjured if he had calmly sat down and let himself go.

Moving downward among the trees, he had almost reached the bottom of the
valley when he came upon a belt of rugged stones, and in picking a path
across them slipped and fell. He was not much hurt, but when he went on
again his foot felt sore and he was limping when he reached the river.
One or two trees near it had been chopped, and a spur of rock lower down
had its summit marked by a pole. He had reached the line of track, and he
followed it west, having heard there was a camp farther on, though his
informants did not know whether it was now occupied. It was, however, a
relief to stop among a clump of spruce at dusk. When he had made a fire
he examined his foot. There was no sign of injury except that ankle and
instep were rather red, and he went to sleep reassured.

In the morning he was surprised to find that the foot was painful and
that the back of his leg felt strained. He would have been tempted to
remain in camp only that his provisions were nearly exhausted, and after
a meager breakfast he resumed the march. The bottom of the valley was
level, the timber thin, but there was a good deal of brush to be
struggled through and before long he was forced to take to the winding
river. By noon it cost him a determined effort to walk, for his foot was
extremely painful and his leg getting sore. As he did not know how far
off the camp was, it seemed prudent to save the food he had left, and he
limped on, his lips tight-set.

The snow-covered ice was smooth, but the bends of the river increased the
distance wofully; there was a keen wind, and the dark pines stretched on
without a break as far as he could see. As he entered each fresh loop of
the stream he looked eagerly for an opening or sign of life, but there
were only rows of ragged spires, cutting sharply against the sky. He felt
inexpressibly lonely and badly afraid; the desolation was growing
appalling, and he could not keep on his feet much longer. He had food
enough for two scanty meals, and then, if no help came, he must starve.

There was now a pain which grew rapidly worse in his left side; his
shoulders ached beneath his load, and every joint was sore with the
effort it cost him to save his injured foot. The sun sank lower, and the
trees still ran on ahead. Indeed, they were growing thicker, and he could
see only a short distance into the avenues between the great colonnades
of trunks. The loops of the river doubled more closely; in spite of his
exertion he was getting very little farther down the valley; but an
attempt to push through the forest led him into such tangles of fallen
trunks and branches that he was forced back to the ice.

At length he reached a spot where a fire had swept the bush. Branches and
clustering needles had been burned away; the trees ran up in bare,
charred columns, black when looked at closely, in the distance a curious
silvery gray. Prescott could see ahead between them, and he stopped with
his heart beating rapidly, for on the white hillside some distance off
stood a few shacks. This was the camp, and in spite of the pain it cost
him he increased his pace, driven by keen suspense. He did not know if
there were men yonder, and he could see no smoke. The doubt grew
tormenting; leaving the stream farther on, he struck into unburned bush
that hid the camp from him. There were thorny brakes and thickets of
withered ferns, but though progress was excruciatingly painful he smashed
through them furiously. He was hot and breathless; it was insufferable
that he should be delayed among the timber in anxiety. Breaking out into
the open, he sent up a hoarse cry, for a thin trail of vapor curled above
one of the shacks. Then a man appeared in the doorway and waved a hand to
him.

Prescott felt suddenly limp and nerveless; now that help was near at
hand, he wanted to sit down; but he held on until he limped into the hut,
where two men stood awaiting him. They were strong, weather-beaten
fellows, dressed in quaintly patched garments, and they looked
good-humored.

"Come right in," said one. "Pull that box up to the fire and sit down."

Prescott was glad to obey, and when he had taken off his pack he looked
about the shack. It was substantially built: stones and soil had been
used in its construction as well as boards and bark. It was warmed by a
big open fire and contained a table, besides a few tubs and cases which
served as seats. A bunk neatly made of split boards and filled with
spruce twigs and swamp hay ran along one end.

"Can you take me in for a day or two?" he asked. "I've hurt my foot."

"Sure," said the second man. "I noticed you were walking lame. We're well
stocked in groceries and Steve got a deer a day or two ago."

"How did you get your stores?"

"The contractor brought them up. There was quite a camp here; company
putting in all the preliminary work that could be done with the shovel.
They shut down when the frost came, but we figured we'd stay on, and took
over part of the supplies. The boss had more truck than he could pack
down to the other camps."

"Then there's nobody else about the place?"

"No, sir," said the first man; "they're all gone. It's kind of lonely,
but we're doing some chopping for the road, and we'll be right here with
money saved when work begins in spring. Bought a piece of fruit land,
part on mortgage, at a snap, and with good luck we'll have it clear when
we go back."

The short explanation supplied a clue to the characters of the men, who
with an eye to the future preferred to face the rigors of the north
rather than to spend the winter hanging round the saloons on the warmer
coast.

"Well," inquired the other, "where did you come from?"

Prescott mentioned the last camp he had visited and gave them a few
particulars about his journey.

"And so you came down the Long Bench--pretty tough proposition that! And
kept the trail on short rations!" one of his hosts remarked. "Suppose you
take a smoke, and I'll get supper a little earlier."

Before long he was given a share of a simple but abundant meal, and after
it was over sat talking with his hosts. It was dark outside now, but
although the men had run out of oil for the lamp, the fire gave them
light, and pungent odors issued from the resinous logs. The room was warm
and, by comparison with the frozen wilderness, supremely comfortable.

"What's the matter with your foot?" one of the men asked when Prescott
took off his boot.

Prescott described how it felt, though he explained that he could find no
sign of injury, and the other nodded.

"Ricked it a bit; got one of the ligaments or something kinked," he said.
"Known that happen when there wasn't much to show. You had better lie off
for a while."

It occurred to Prescott that he might be in much worse quarters, though
he shrank from the delay a rest would entail.

"What took you up the gully and over the Bench, anyway?" the man went on.

Prescott explained and then asked: "Have you come across my partner or
the other fellow, Hollin?"

"Never seen your partner." The man looked at his comrade and laughed.
"But we know Hollin, all right. Got an idea that he's a boss prospector
and froze on to the railroad job because it took him into the mountains.
Been all round looking for minerals; got fired for it at one or two
camps, and never struck anything worth speaking of. It's a point on which
he's certainly a crank."

It was characteristic of Kermode, Prescott thought, that he should be
willing to accompany a man with a craze of the kind.

"I'd expected to find them here. I understood they didn't mean to go back
to the camp at Butler Ridge," he said.

"We haven't seen their tracks, and if they were heading west, they'd have
to come down this valley; but I guess nobody could tell where Hollin
would make for. Of course, you can't prospect much in winter with
everything frozen up and the snow about, but so long as he can trail
through the mountains and find a few clean rocks the man will be happy;
and I'll allow that he's smart at it. Knows how to fix a camp, and find a
deer, if there's one in the country. It's a sure thing he'll have to
strike for a camp or store sooner or later; but it's likely he has
crossed the line south and is trying to make the Fraser and the
settlements along the Canadian Pacific railroad."

It was bad news to Prescott. He knew enough about the Pacific Province to
realize that if his host's suppositions were correct, he would have a
vast area to search; a region of stony uplands, mountain chains, and
rock-walled valleys.

"Would it be possible for me to get through?" he asked.

"No, sir! You don't want to think of it. Guess your partner will be
pretty safe with Hollin; but you're a plainsman and you'd sure get lost
in a day or two and starve when your grub ran out."

"That's right," agreed the other man. "The thing can't be done."

Prescott fell in with his opinion. It would, he thought, require a number
of expert mountaineers to trace the men he sought through the desolation
of rock and forest to the south. Besides, British Columbia was well
populated along the Canadian Pacific line, from which many avenues of
communication opened up, and there would be a strong probability of his
missing Kermode.

"Well," he said reluctantly, "perhaps, I had better stop round here in
case they keep this track; and my foot's too sore to let me move. Could
you put me up for a week or two? I'll try to make it worth your while."

"Stop as long as you want," Steve responded. "We'll have to charge you
for the grub, because we paid quite a pile for it, but we'll only strike
you for your share."

"Thank you," said Prescott, and the others began to talk of Hollin.

"If that man would let up on prospecting he'd get rich," declared one.
"When a survey outfit goes up into the bush, Hollin's picked for the boss
packer's job, and when there's a new wagon road to be staked out they
generally put him on. A smart man at striking the easiest line through
rough country."

"That's so," agreed Steve. "Trouble is that he can't stay with it. Soon
as he collects some pay, he goes off on the prospecting trail, and then
heads for Vancouver with a bag of specimens that aren't worth anything.
When the mineral men hear of a new Hollin discovery they smile. Guess
he's found most everything--gold, copper, zinc, and platinum--and never
made fifty cents out of them, 'cept once when, so the boys say, a mining
company fellow gave him five dollars to promise he wouldn't worry him
again. Now they've orders in all the offices that if Hollin comes round
with any more specimens they're not to let him in."

Prescott laughed. The man he had heard described was Kermode's companion,
and he could imagine their wandering up and down the province, one as
irresponsible as the other; meeting with strange experiences, stubbornly
braving the perils of the wilds; making themselves a nuisance to business
men in the cities. The matter had, however, a more serious aspect.
Prescott had spent some time on the useless search and he could not
continue it throughout the winter. It would be futile to speculate on the
movements of men so erratic as those he had followed. He could not
neglect his farm, and he had a heavy crop to haul in and sell: this was a
duty that must be attended to.

If he went back without Jernyngham, and Curtis still clung to his theory,
the police might give him trouble; but he must run that risk. Though
convinced of it, he had no means of proving that Jernyngham was wandering
through British Columbia in company with a crazy prospector.

After a while he grew drowsy and got into the bunk, where he lay down,
enjoying the warmth and softness of the spruce twigs until he went to
sleep.



CHAPTER XIX

PRESCOTT'S RETURN


It was Saturday evening, clear and cold, though the frost was not
intense. A number of the farmers and their wives had driven in to
Sebastian to meet their friends and make their weekly purchases. A row of
light rigs stood outside the livery-stable, voices and laughter rose from
the sidewalks; the town looked cheerful and almost picturesque with its
roofs and tall elevator towers cutting against the soft night sky.

A full moon hung above them, but its silvery radiance was paled by other
lights. Warm gleams shone out from the store windows upon the
hard-trodden snow; a train of lighted cars stood at the station, and the
intense white glare of the head-lamp mingled with the beam flung far
across the prairie by a freight locomotive on a side-track. Groups of
people strolled up and down the low platform, waiting to see the train go
out, and their voices rang merrily on the frosty air. From one of the
great shadowy elevators there came a whirr of wheels.

When the train rolled away into the wilderness, Muriel Hurst entered the
hotel and went upstairs to the parlor where Colston and her sister were
sitting. The room was furnished in defective taste, but it was warm and
brightly lighted, and the girl had got accustomed to the smell of warm
iron diffused by the stove and the odor of burning kerosene. Colston
occupied an easy-chair, and when Muriel took off her furs he looked up
with a smile, noticing the fine color the nipping air had brought into
her face. She looked braced and vigorous, but it struck him that she wore
a thoughtful expression.

"Did you buy all you wanted?" he asked.

"I got what I came for." Muriel sat down and handed her sister a parcel.
"I think that ought to match. Has Harry been lounging there since supper?
Isn't he the picture of comfortable laziness?"

Colston laughed. He was still very neatly dressed, but he looked harder
than he had when he first reached the prairie and his face was brown.

"I'm content, and that's a great thing," he rejoined. "Indeed, I'll
confess that I could enjoy our stay here, except for the damping effect
of our friends' trouble. It's astonishing how little one misses the
comforts we insist on in England, and I'm coming to take an interest in
the visits we pay among the ranches and our weekly trip to Sebastian.
Then nobody could maintain that your sister looks any the worse for her
experience. I'm beginning to think she might pass for a wheat-grower's
wife."

"I heard Mrs. Johnson ask when you were going to take a farm," Muriel
retorted. "It would be difficult to imagine you tramping down a furrow
behind a plow or driving one of those smelly gasoline tractors; but
you'll be able to pose before your constituents as an authority on
colonial questions when you go home."

"I'm afraid they'll throw me over unless they see me soon; but there's
nothing else to take me back, and I'd feel we were deserting our friends
in their distress."

"We can't leave them yet," Mrs. Colston broke in. "The suspense is
preying upon Jernyngham. He's getting dangerously moody; I know Gertrude
feels anxious about him."

A curious expression crept into Muriel's eyes.

"Believing what he does, it's natural that he should clamor for justice,
but he's becoming possessed by a feverish cruelty. It's mastering him,
destroying his judgment."

"You're alluding to his suspicions of Prescott?"

Muriel's eyes sparkled as she took up the challenge.

"You know as well as I do that they're altogether wrong! It's impossible
that he should be guilty!"

"One would like to think so," her sister responded with dry reserve. "But
it's a pity he ran away."

Muriel could not deny this. She had retained her faith in Prescott, but
his silence about the motive for an absence that must tell against him
troubled her. It was strange that he had given her no hint, and she felt
hurt.

"He may have gone because he could not bear to be distrusted," she said.
"You are both sorry for Jernyngham, but don't you think the man he
unjustly suspects deserves some pity?"

"Well," said Colston, "I've tried to keep an open mind. Prejudice, of
course, should not be pandered to; but one is as likely to be led astray
by too strong a partiality for the suspected person." He paused before he
added: "However, I envy you your confidence; I liked the man."

"The worst of it is that the matter may go dragging on until it wears
Gertrude and her father out," Mrs. Colston remarked. "It would be a
relief in some ways to learn the truth, however bad it is."

"Mr. Prescott has no reason to dread the truth's coming out," said Muriel
staunchly.

Then a maid came in to announce that their team was ready, and, putting
on her furs, Muriel went down in advance of the others to see that her
purchases had been placed together. After she had gone, Mrs. Colston
looked at her husband.

"I think it would be advisable to mention Prescott as seldom as
possible."

"So do I," Colston agreed. "I wonder whether you have noticed anything
unusual in the relations between Muriel and Gertrude of late? They used
to be good friends in England."

"I have remarked some signs of strain. But it is not a matter you could
be expected to take an interest in."

"Of course," Colston rejoined deprecatingly, and went down with his wife.

Leslie's team and a smart sleigh, which Jernyngham had had sent out from
Toronto, stood at the door, and after he had helped his wife and Muriel
in, Colston took the reins. When they had jolted across the track, the
snow was beaten smooth along the trail; the team was fresh after resting,
and it was a brilliant night. They set off at an exhilarating speed, and
though their faces tingled they kept warm beneath their furs and
driving-robes. Far in front of them spread the prairie, gleaming white
beneath the moon; no cloud stained the vault of soft deep blue, and the
drumming of the hoofs rang out in merry rhythm. The crisp cold, which was
less marked than usual, stirred the blood.

They passed a buggy, drawn by a good horse, and later a light wagon, for
the snow does not, as a rule, lie deep on the western prairie and the
farmers largely continue the use of wheels. After that for some time they
were alone on the waste, until as they approached a tract of broken
country a wagon appeared on the crest of a rise, with the double span of
horses in front of it cutting sharply black against the snow. It came on
slowly, heavily loaded with bags of grain, and then the dark shape of a
man who walked beside the team grew visible. As they came closer, Colston
turned his horses out of the trail to let the wagon pass, and then
started as the moonlight fell on the teamster's face. It was Prescott.

For a moment he hesitated, and then pulled up, acknowledging the man's
greeting with a lifted hand. Mrs. Colston, however, said nothing, and
Prescott stood quietly by his horses' heads, until Muriel called him
forward and gave him her hand.

"When did you get back?" she asked.

"Late last night. We broke the wheat bin this morning, and I'm taking the
first load in."

"But where were you?"

"In Alberta and British Columbia most of the time."

He volunteered no further information and there was an awkward pause, for
Prescott had noticed that Colston had been undecided whether to drive on
or not. Mrs. Colston sat farthest from him, so that he could not see her,
but she had not addressed him yet. It was clear that his appearance had
affected them unpleasantly.

"When we next meet, you must tell us about your trip," said Muriel.

"We should be interested to hear about it," Colston added lamely, and
Prescott forced a smile. Muriel was the only one who had treated him on
the old friendly footing; and he could hardly visit the Leslie homestead,
even if he were invited, while Jernyngham was there.

"I may see you some time, and I mustn't keep you now," he responded.

He started his team, and Colston turned to his companions.

"I'll confess that I've had a great surprise."

"Of course, you imagined that Mr. Prescott had gone for good!" said
Muriel with scorn.

"I'm afraid I had some idea of that nature. He would hardly have come
back if he were guilty."

"Oh," said Muriel mockingly, "you really can't tell what an unscrupulous,
bold man might do."

"Spare me," Colston begged with a laugh. "After all, it looks as if you
have been right." He turned to his wife. "What do you think?"

"Mr. Prescott's guilt or innocence is a question I can't decide; but in
making us believe he was Cyril Jernyngham he did a very wrong and foolish
thing. That Cyril may have urged him to do so is no excuse."

"Leaving Mr. Prescott out, I think Cyril's idea was a very generous one,"
Muriel declared.

"How can you believe that?"

"He must have wished to save his father and sister pain, and he knew the
trick would cost him a good deal. For one thing, it would prevent his
going home to be reinstated, because of course if he had done so, we
would have seen he was not the man we had met in Canada. He meant to stay
here, refusing to benefit by the change in his affairs, out of
consideration for his relatives."

"And you approve his passing off this western farmer for a Jernyngham?"
Mrs. Colston asked.

"Oh, that!" Muriel's laugh was scornful. "You were satisfied with the man
until you knew his name was Prescott. How was it that you didn't miss the
inherent superiority of the Jernynghams? Besides, I can't think Cyril
suffered by getting his friend to represent him. Though people won't talk
very freely, I've picked up some information since I've been here, enough
to show what kind of man Cyril was. He hadn't much to boast of, and one
must do him the justice to admit that he seems to have recognized it. You
probably know, though you hid it from me, that on the evening he should
have met us he was lying in the hotel after getting badly hurt in a
drunken brawl among some riotous Orangemen."

"I can't have any reflections cast upon Orangemen," Colston objected.
"There are a large number in my constituency; most worthy people, for
whom I've a strong respect."

"You have a respect for their votes, you mean," Muriel rejoined. "You
know you're really ritualistic High Church. If your constituents knew as
much about St. Cuthbert's as I do, they would turn you out."

"I have never hid my convictions," Colston declared. "Anyway, I have
ascertained that the greater proportion of the Orangemen were sober."

"Then," retorted Muriel, "I'm sorry that Cyril was not. But there are
more important points to consider."

"That is very true," said Mrs. Colston. "Will you tell Jernyngham that we
have seen Prescott, Harry?"

Colston hesitated.

"No; I don't think so. I'm afraid of the effect it may have on him; and
he won't be up when we get in. All the same, he's bound to hear the news
from somebody else very soon."

Neither of the others answered, and they drove on in silence until the
lights of the Leslie homestead blinked across the snow. The cheerfulness
which had marked the party when they set out had gone; they felt a sense
of constraint, and Muriel wondered uneasily whether she had spoken with
too much freedom.

The next morning they were sitting with Jernyngham and Gertrude when a
neighboring rancher came in.

"I thought Leslie might be here," he explained. "Don't mean to intrude."

Colston knew the man and he asked him to sit down. Jernyngham glanced up
from the Winnipeg paper he was reading. His face was worn and had set
into a fixed, harsh expression, but his manner conveyed a hint of
eagerness; of late it had suggested that he was continually expecting
something.

"I drove over to give Leslie a message," the newcomer continued. "I guess
you have heard that Prescott's back."

Jernyngham started and dropped the paper.

"Prescott back? You must be mistaken!"

"No, sir! Spoke to him on the trail last night. He was hauling in a load
to the settlement, and I was driving home half an hour after Mr.
Colston."

"There's only one trail," said Jernyngham, looking hard at Colston. "You
must have met the fellow. Why didn't you tell me?"

Colston showed confusion.

"To tell the truth, I was afraid the news might distress and excite you.
You couldn't do anything until Monday, and I thought it better to let you
spend to-day in peace."

"In peace!" Jernyngham laughed in a jarring manner. "Tormented as I am by
suspense that grows beyond endurance!" His eyes glittered and the lines
on his face deepened. "And I'm to be kept in ignorance while the villain
who robbed and killed my son goes about his work undisturbed!"

There was an awkward silence for a few moments. Mrs. Colston looked
distressed, and Gertrude regarded Muriel with a long searching glance.
The girl felt that she was being suspected of abetting her brother-in-law
for some ulterior purpose. She was of sanguine temperament and wayward
temper, and her blood ran warm; but she held in check the anger that she
burned to give expression to. Then their visitor, whom they had
forgotten, broke in:

"Now, sir, you're getting ahead too fast. There's nothing proved against
Prescott, and I and others know he never did the thing!" He paused and
Muriel, regardless of her companions, flung him a grateful glance as he
went on: "Even Curtis can't bring it home to him!"

"Curtis," said Jernyngham contemptuously, "is a cautious fool! I'll
communicate with his chiefs at Regina." He got up with a decided air.
"I'll start for Sebastian at once. Where's Leslie? I must see him about a
team."

"You stay where you are," said the farmer, with rude sympathy. "I heard
that one of the police bosses will be at the settlement to-morrow and you
can see him then; Curtis took a room for him at the hotel. I'm telling
you because the sooner all this muss is cleared up the better, and it
won't hurt Prescott."

He went out and Jernyngham, without speaking to the others, picked up his
paper. Muriel took a book from a shelf, but although she determinedly
tried to fix her attention on it, she could make no sense of what she
read. It was a dreary morning; Colston was soon driven out, and the
others were oppressed by a feeling of constraint and tension. They were
glad when Jernyngham and Gertrude started for Sebastian in the afternoon.
After they had gone, Colston looked at his wife and sister-in-law
dolefully.

"This kind of thing will tell upon your nerves; I'm beginning to feel
it," he said. "We must have a long drive to-morrow to get rid of the
depression. Those people on the ranch by the bluff pressed us to come
back again."

"There are many excuses for our friends; you couldn't expect them to be
cheerful," Mrs. Colston replied.

"That's very true; one must try to remember it. It seems our duty to
remain and comfort them as much as possible; but I can't say that they're
always very grateful. Indeed, I have felt hurt by Gertrude's reserve,
though, considering how trying all this must be for her, one can't take
exception to it."

"Gertrude knows her brother is alive!" said Muriel coldly.

Her sister cast a keen glance at her, while Colston, made a sign of
expostulation.

"I scarcely think you have any right to say that; but I'll confess that
I'm wavering in my opinions--Prescott's return has had its effect on me.
In fact, the mystery's getting deeper and more fascinating; I feel
impelled to wait and see it unraveled."

"That is hardly the way to regard it," his wife rebuked him. "I would
rather remember that the Jernynghams have a strong claim on our
sympathy."

"It's the main consideration, of course. But we'll decide on the drive
to-morrow. It has been a depressing day."



CHAPTER XX

MURIEL RELIEVES HER MIND


On the Monday morning, Jernyngham was shown into the parlor of the hotel
where a commissioned officer of the police sat waiting for him. He had
keen, observant eyes, but his manner was quiet, and Jernyngham endeavored
to control his impatience.

"I suppose you know that Prescott has returned to his farm?" he said,
taking the chair the other pointed to.

"I have been informed so," the officer replied.

"Then may I ask what you mean to do?"

"We have come to no decision."

"But your men have a warrant for him!"

The officer changed his position and his expression hinted at
forbearance.

"That is so. On the whole, I think it should not have been issued."

"You must not let the fellow's return influence you unduly."

"Very true," said the other with a calm which Jernyngham found maddening.
"It would be unwise to infer too much from that."

"He is a bold man; he has, no doubt, counted on the effect his coming
back would have," Jernyngham urged.

"It's possible," the officer agreed.

Jernyngham's nerves had given way beneath the strain he had borne, and he
now stood up, trembling with anger.

"Am I to understand that you intend to leave the fellow alone? Now, when
he is within your reach, you will not arrest him? The scoundrel killed my
son!"

"Might I suggest your sitting down again?" said the officer calmly. "Let
me try to put the matter before you as we look at it. To begin with, we
can't very well press the charge you make against Prescott without some
proof of the victim's death, which has not been discovered yet. The
muskeg, I must remind you, was drained and nothing found. The handsome
reward you offered led to no result, though every man in the district who
had any time to spare spent it in searching the bluffs. Corporal Curtis
has made systematic investigations, but they have been fruitless."

"Corporal Curtis is a man of whose intelligence I have a very poor
opinion!" said Jernyngham hotly.

His companion smiled.

"That's a point upon which I don't altogether share your views."

"In short, you intend to let the matter drop! I must protest against such
a scandalous failure of justice! But you shall not let it drop; I warn
you that I shall apply to Ottawa, where there are people who can put upon
you the pressure that seems to be needed!"

A look of weariness crept into the officer's face.

"You have my sympathy, Mr. Jernyngham, but you can't be allowed to
interfere with the Northwest Police."

Jernyngham pulled himself together.

"I had no wish to be offensive, though I meant what I said. Suppose this
fellow goes off again--for good--as soon as he has sold his wheat?"

"That will have to be guarded against. He will be watched; if he leaves
his farm, he will be followed."

"He gave you the slip neatly on a previous occasion."

"Quite true," said the officer. "Our men are not infallible. I think I
can promise that it will not happen again." Then he rose. "I have some
business waiting and you must excuse me. I can assure you that nothing
which promises to throw any light upon the matter will be neglected."

He opened the door and politely but firmly bowed out his visitor. Then he
called Curtis, who was waiting below.

"I dare say you can guess Mr. Jernyngham's errand," he said. "Unless we
can hit on the truth before long, you'll have that gentleman in the
guard-room."

Curtis looked astonished and his superior smiled compassionately.

"I mean as a sufferer from mental derangement. Don't be communicative,
and confine yourself to reassuring generalities, if you come across him.
His mind's morbidly fixed on punishing Prescott. I don't think he can be
convinced that the man is innocent."

"I can't help meeting him, sir. He spends his time following me about. In
a way, one can't blame him for what he thinks."

"Though it doesn't agree with your conclusions? Sit down; we have a
number of things to talk about."

"Well, sir," said Curtis, "this is certainly a mixed-up case. I've said
nothing all along to disturb people's belief that it was Prescott we were
after, but if I had to corral one of the two, I'd get Wandle. The land
agency man gave us a good description of him."

His superior nodded thoughtfully.

"Prescott impersonated Cyril Jernyngham before his supposed death, and
Wandle personated him afterward; the latter with the more obvious motive.
The point is that there's no evidence of collusion, but rather
disagreement, between the two. Of course, we could arrest Wandle now."

"Yes, sir. As soon as the agent identified him, we could prove forgery
and falsification of the land sale record. He'd be safe in the guard-room
or a penitentiary."

"Just so; we will have him there sooner or later, but if he's guilty of
the more serious charge, he'd have no opportunity for giving himself
away. I'd rather he was left at large and you kept your eye on him. The
same applies to Prescott. Now I've been making a fresh study of the
diagram of the footsteps near the muskeg, and I can see no fault in the
conclusions you arrived at--only the remains can't be found."

"Sure, that's a weak point, sir. But I might mention the case of the
person who was found in a bluff a few miles from home after they'd
searched the district for six months."

"It has been in my mind. But you have other matters to report on. What
about the disturbance on the Indian reservation?"

While they discussed it, Jernyngham set out for the Leslie homestead and
on his arrival found Gertrude alone. Sitting down with a shiver, he
looked at her dejectedly.

"I have failed again. They will do nothing; there's no satisfaction to be
had," he said. "I drove out my son by arbitrary harshness, and now the
only reparation I might have made is denied me."

"You were harsh," assented Gertrude. "I have begun to realize it since we
came to Canada--one sees things differently here. But, in a sense, I
think you were not to be blamed; you acted in the belief that you were
right."

She had seldom ventured to address him with so much candor and she was
surprised at his calmness.

"Yes," he said, "it is some relief to remember that; but I was wrong."

"Then shouldn't it make you more careful not to fall into a similar error
again? You have a fixed idea in your mind and the way you dwell on it is
breaking you down; seeing you suffer is wearing me. Can't you believe
that there is room for doubt?"

"I wish I could," he said with some gentleness, recognizing the anxious
appeal in her voice. "But I imagined you were as convinced as I am of
Prescott's guilt."

"Oh," she replied miserably, "I believed I was; but I don't know what to
think!"

He noticed the distress in her face with uncomprehending sympathy. He was
fond of her, in his stern, reserved fashion, and knew she must deeply
feel the loss of her brother.

"As soon as he saw he was suspected, Prescott ran away," he continued.
"That must count against him. If he had had any motive except the wish to
escape, he would have mentioned it."

Gertrude sat silent, tormented by confused emotions. Prescott had told
her he was going to hunt for Cyril, and until she had seen his devotion
to Muriel she had felt that she must believe in him; then her mind had
been filled with jealousy and doubt. She thought she hated him; after
all, he might be guilty. It was not her part to speak in his defense;
though she felt she was acting treacherously, she could not stand up for
him.

"It is possible that the police were wrong about Cyril," she said at
length.

"I'm afraid not," said Jernyngham. "It might be urged that Prescott has
come back; but I believe that was only to sell his wheat." He broke into
a harsh laugh. "One must admit that the fellow has courage; but he won't
find it easy to escape again. Every move of his will be watched."

Gertrude sat very still for a few moments, her lips tightly pressed
together. Then she made a gesture of weariness.

"Oh," she said, "it's all so hard to bear! There's nothing but doubt and
suspense; not a ray of comfort!"

Getting up languidly she went out and left her father lost in thought.

An hour or two afterward, Prescott sat near the stove in his homestead,
moodily making entries in an account-book, when he heard voices in the
passage and looked up with a start. The next moment the door opened and
Muriel Hurst came in. His heart throbbed furiously at the sight of her;
she looked excited and eager; her rich furs enhanced her charm. He
thought she made a wonderfully attractive picture in the small, simply
furnished room, but he laid a strong restraint upon himself as he rose.

"I felt that I had to come; I wanted to show that your friends still
trusted you," she said impulsively.

He made no move to bring her a chair.

"It was a generous thought, but, considering everything, I don't know
that it was wise. Did you tell Colston or your sister that you were
coming?"

"No," she answered with a trace of confusion; "I left rather in a hurry."
Then she broke into a forced laugh. "This isn't the welcome I expected!"

Prescott's eyes gleamed.

"You know I'm glad to see you."

"Well," she said, sitting down with a hint of defiance in her air,
"that's the most important thing; though the confession had to be
extorted from you. It looked as if you wanted to get rid of me."

"I felt I ought to."

Muriel looked at him with amusement.

"Duty against inclination! It's a pity the former was beaten. But aren't
you falling into our way of thinking rather fast?"

"That isn't strange. I've had English ideas impressed on me pretty
forcibly during the last few months. But you made a statement that
surprised me. Does Colston trust me?"

"He wants to."

"That implies a doubt. And your sister; is she on my side?"

"She's reserving her opinion."

"You can't say that the Jernynghams are convinced of my innocence."

"No," said Muriel. "I think they're cruelly and unreasonably bitter."

"Then that leaves only one person with unshaken faith." His eyes rested
on the girl with deep gratitude and tenderness. "Miss Hurst, I think I
may say it's quite enough."

She looked up fearlessly, with heightened color.

"We won't pay each other compliments. Will you tell me why you went
away?"

"Yes; I went to look for Cyril Jernyngham."

Muriel made an abrupt movement and her eyes sparkled with relief which
she did not try to hide.

"Oh," she said, "that's such a complete explanation; it answers
everything! But why didn't you tell people the reason you were going? You
must have known that stealing away, as you did, would count against you!"

"I told Miss Jernyngham."

"Gertrude knew?" Muriel started. Then her face hardened. "After all, that
doesn't matter; there are much more important things. You didn't find
Cyril?"

"I followed him across three provinces and lost him in the end."

"Ah!" she said. "How unfortunate, how terribly disappointing! But tell me
all you did; I'm not asking from mere curiosity." She hesitated. "I think
you owe me that."

He told her the story of his wanderings and what he had learned about
Kermode's adventures. She listened with eager attention, and laughed now
and then.

"It's convincing on the face of it," she declared. "One feels that
everything is exactly what Cyril Jernyngham must have done. Will you tell
his father?"

"No," Prescott answered gravely. "He wouldn't believe the tale."

"But I feel it can't be doubted, after what I have heard of Cyril's
character and his conduct in England."

"You have an open mind. I think you hate injustice; you try to be fair.
That, I guess, is why you came to see me."

Muriel glanced at him sharply, and then smiled.

"I suppose it was; I felt that you have been badly treated. But I only
meant to stay a minute or two, and you seem to be busy."

He did not deny it. Conscious as he was of her charm and his longing for
her, he feared to detain her lest he should be driven into some rash
avowal.

"I'm very grateful for your confidence," he answered slowly.

"Well," said Muriel, "I must go." She rose, but stood still a moment.
"Mr. Prescott, it hurts me to see suspicion fall on my friends. You must
clear yourself somehow."

"Ah," he said moodily, "how am I to set about it?"

"For one thing, you must not go away again. That would look bad." She
hesitated. "And, from a few words I heard, I fear it would bring the
police after you."

"It seems very probable; I'll stay while I'm allowed," he said with some
bitterness and turned toward the door with her. Then a little color crept
into his face as she held out her hand. "Miss Hurst," he added, "you are
a very staunch friend."

Muriel smiled.

"It really looks as if staunchness were one of my virtues; but you see I
venture to act on my opinions without paying much attention to what other
people think. After all, that would be foolish, wouldn't it?"

Then she got into the sleigh and left him wondering what she could have
meant. He knew her friends regarded him as a man of inferior station,
who, if cleared from suspicion, might perhaps be tolerated so long as he
recognized his limitations and did not presume. Had Muriel wished to hint
that she differed from them in this respect? The thought of it set his
heart to beating fast and when he went back to his books he found it
singularly difficult to fix his mind on them.

Muriel drove rapidly to the Leslie homestead and, reaching it after dark,
joined the others at supper. During the meal, a reference to Jernyngham's
interview with the police officer gave her the opportunity she was
waiting for.

"When Mr. Prescott went away it told badly against him, because people
didn't know what his object was," she said.

She fixed her eyes on Gertrude, but the latter's face was expressionless
as she moved her plate.

"He went to find Cyril," she added.

Mrs. Colston looked up sharply; her husband started.

"If true, it's a strong point in his favor," Colston declared.

Gertrude still made no sign; but her father broke into an incredulous
smile.

"An excellent motive! It's a pity he didn't mention it before he went! It
would have carried more weight then!"

There was an awkward silence; and then Muriel said firmly:

"Still, that was why he went away."

Jernyngham looked hard at her and made a gesture which suggested that the
matter would not bear discussion. Then Colston began to talk to her, and
he was glad when the meal was finished. Muriel waited until she found
Gertrude alone in her room.

"You knew Mr. Prescott went to look for your brother, and yet you would
not say a word," she said.

"Ah!" exclaimed Gertrude sharply. "So you have seen him! You drove over
this afternoon--one might have expected that."

Muriel's eyes sparkled, but she answered calmly:

"Yes, I went to see him; but you're evading the point. What reason could
you have had for trying to injure an innocent man?"

Gertrude made an uneasy movement.

"Aren't you taking too much for granted? To begin with, his innocence is
very doubtful."

"Yet, I think you must have been convinced of it. That he told you why he
was going proves that you were on friendly terms, which would have been
impossible if you had thought him guilty. What has made you change?"

The girl's voice was stingingly scornful. It looked as if she suspected
something, and Gertrude broke into a cold smile.

"Oh," she said, "the man is clever; he has a way of creeping into one's
confidence. He appears to have had no trouble in gaining yours. After
all, however, if my father is right, I have a duty to my brother's
memory."

"Your father is so possessed and carried away by an idea that one can
almost forgive him his injustice and cruelty. You have not the same
excuse!"

Gertrude turned toward her with a formal manner.

"I think you have gone far enough. Do you intend to tell the others what
you have said to me?"

"Oh, no," answered Muriel. "It would serve no purpose. But I feel that
sooner or later you will be sorry for what you have done."

Then she went out, leaving Gertrude alone with her reflections.



CHAPTER XXI

WANDLE TAKES PRECAUTIONS


Bright sunshine streamed down upon the glittering plain, tempering the
frost, when Wandle stood outside his house one morning, wondering how he
should employ himself during the day. He had hauled his wheat in to the
elevators, and when that is done the western farmer has now and then some
leisure, because the frozen ground renders many of his usual operations
impossible. Wandle had a stack of cordwood ready cut, and though he
needed some logs for an addition to his stable which he meant to build,
the thinness of the snow, which had been disturbed by a strong wind,
would make the work of hauling them home too difficult. He was, however,
an active man, who rarely wasted time or money; and as he looked about,
the ash-heap caught his eye. It was rather large and near his house, and
he determined to remove it, now that he had nothing better to do.

In a few minutes he was hard at work with a pick, and succeeded, with
some difficulty, in breaking through the frozen crust. The moisture,
however, had not penetrated far enough into the fine wood-ash for the
rest to freeze, so that he was soon able to use the shovel and during the
next half-hour he flung a quantity of the stuff into his wagon. As he did
so he looked out for Jernyngham's cash-box, and grew surprised when it
did not appear. When he had hauled the load away and deposited it in a
swampy place he was getting anxious. The box could not have escaped his
notice, because he had spread the ash thinly; he had, he thought, dug far
enough into the pile to have reached it; but there was still no sign of
it. This was disconcerting, and he worked until he had largely reduced
the heap, and he scattered the next load so that every bit of rubbish
among it could be seen. Then he stopped in dismay to think. He had
certainly thrown the box among the ash, and it was gone; the only
inference was that somebody had afterward dug it up and taken it away.

Wandle realized this with a shock, but he was too keen-witted to give way
to alarm and leave his task unfinished. He must remove the whole pile, in
order to give no cause for suspicion that he had been excavating in
search of something; and the sooner it was done the better. It was noon
when the work was finished and he entered the house, where there was
something else to be done. He was a methodical man and had a place for
each of his belongings. He began by examining the position of every
article in a cupboard. None seemed to have been disturbed, which was
reassuring, and Wandle proceeded to empty a chest in which he kept his
clothing. He had reached the bottom of it when a pair of light summer
shoes caught his eye and his face became intent. They were not where he
had placed them; he remembered having fitted them in between some other
things at the opposite end of the chest. This confirmed his worst
suspicions, but he carefully laid back each garment before he sat down to
consider.

It was obvious that the police had searched his house, and had taken the
cash-box away, but he was careful not to let his fears overcome his
judgment. The box was of a cheap and common pattern; it would be
difficult to identify it as having belonged to Jernyngham. He was more
troubled by the evidence that he was being watched by the police because
it might result in their discovering the sale of land he had made. This
must be guarded against, as the offense was serious, and would, moreover,
connect him with Jernyngham's disappearance; but Wandle would not be
driven into any rash and precipitate action by his alarm. He was a cool,
ready-witted, avaricious man, who had found industry profitable, and he
had no intention of leaving the farm he had spent so much work on. Flight
would mean ruin: he could not dispose of his property before he went
without attracting attention, and it would, in all probability, lead to
his arrest. He must stay and face the matter out.

First of all, he tried to estimate the risk of his being recognized as
the man who had sold Jernyngham's land. If the suspicions of the agent he
had dealt with were aroused, he might describe his customer to the
police. Wandle was glad his appearance was by no means striking. When he
sold the land, he had, however, worn a newly made suit of a rather vivid
brown, which the man would probably remember. Wandle had bought it on a
business visit to Brandon, which was a long way off, and the police could
not have seen it when searching his house, because they had done so in
his absence and when he left the farm to drive in to the settlement he
had put on the clothes. There was a risk that somebody in Sebastian might
remember how he was dressed, but, as he had been there only once or twice
in the past few months, he did not think it was likely.

The garments would have to be sacrificed, which was unfortunate, because
clothing is dear in western Canada; but Wandle thought of a better means
of getting rid of them, than destroying them. It was obvious that the
suspicions of the police must fall on himself or Prescott, and he
preferred that the latter should be implicated. After a while, he saw
what could be done, provided there was wind enough to obliterate his
footsteps in the snow or there should be another fall.

He had to wait a few days; and then one evening he made up the clothes
into a bundle, saddled a horse, and rode off across the prairie toward
the Prescott homestead. It was very cold and he would have been more
comfortable wrapped in a driving-robe in his buggy; but the moon now and
then shone through the rifts in the clouds, and a rig could not be hidden
or driven in among thick trees.

A long bluff ran close up to the homestead, and when Wandle reached its
outer end he got down and walked beside his horse, keeping the wood
between him and the farm trail. It was important that he should not be
seen. The horse would attract no attention, because Prescott had a
number, and hardy, range-bred horses are often left to run loose through
the winter. Still, clear moonlight streamed through between the slender
trees, and there was a glow from the windows of the house. As Wandle drew
nearer it he moved with greater caution. He was fortunate in having done
so, for he stopped with a start as two black mounted figures cut against
the sky not far in front of him. They were clearly visible as they
crossed an opening, and though he stood in shadow beside a denser growth
of trees his heart beat faster as he watched them. They were riding
slowly, keeping out of view of the house, which was significant, because
had they been neighbors of Prescott's returning from a visit to him they
would have taken no trouble to avoid being seen. These were police
troopers, watching the homestead.

Presently one of them spoke to the other, and Wandle recognized Private
Stanton's voice. Indeed, it was ominously distinct, and Wandle, standing
very still with a firm hand on the bridle, passed a few anxious moments;
a movement of his horse might betray him. The troopers, however, drew
abreast without glancing toward him and the tension slackened as they
slowly moved away. What they expected to find he could not tell, but he
was on the whole pleased to see them hanging round the bluff. He waited a
while after the faint sound they had made died away; and then, tying his
horse to a branch, he crept quietly into the bluff.

There were belts of shadow among the trees; he got entangled among nut
bushes and thickets, but creeping on toward the house, he reached a more
open space and found a hollow nearly filled with withered leaves. There
he stopped, wondering whether it would be safe to strike a match; but he
knew that something must be risked and he got a light and bent down,
shielding it with his hands. The leaves lay thickly together, a foot or
two in depth, and the place looked suitable for his purpose.

A stream of light suddenly broke out from the door of the homestead and
Wandle's hand closed quickly on the match; somebody was crossing from the
house to the stable with a lantern. He could see the man's dark figure
plainly, though he could not recognize him, and he waited until a door
was noisily opened. Then he scraped the leaves aside and laid the brown
clothes in the hollow. He stayed beside it until the man with the lantern
returned to the house, and then he crept back through the bluff and led
his horse toward its end, where he mounted and rode to the next farm.
After spending an hour with its owner, arranging for a journey to a bluff
where unusually large logs could be found, he rode home content.
Everything had gone as he wished; there would, he thought, be snow enough
before morning to cover any tracks he had left, and he could, if
necessary, account for his having been in the neighborhood of the
Prescott farm.

During the next week, Wandle watched the weather, which continued fine
after a few snow showers. A heavy fall might hide the clothes until
spring, but he could think of no means of leading up to their discovery.
To give the police a hint would fix their suspicions on himself, and he
wondered how one could be conveyed to them indirectly. Chance provided
him with an opportunity.

Gertrude Jernyngham borrowed Leslie's team one afternoon and set out for
a drive. Troubled as she was, she had of late found the strain of
maintaining a tranquil demeanor before her friends growing too much for
her, and it was trying to spend the greater portion of her time in
Muriel's society. She was filled with a jealous hatred of the girl, and
felt that it would be a relief to be alone a while. The air was still,
bright sunshine flooded the plain, the thick driving-robe kept her
comfortably warm; and, lost in painful thought, she had driven farther
than she intended when she turned back. On doing so, she noticed that she
had left the beaten trail and she looked about timidly. The sun was low,
a gray dimness had crept across the eastern half of the prairie where the
homestead lay and a piercing wind was springing up. There was nobody in
sight and no sign of a house, and she could not remember which of the
bluffs that stretched in wavy lines across the waste she had passed.

She drove on toward the east, eagerly looking for the trail, while the
horse broke through the thin snow-crust and the sleigh ran heavily, until
she reached a slope leading to a frozen swamp. It was of some extent, and
she grew anxious, for she had not seen the spot before. The country ahead
was more broken, rolling in low rises with short pines on their summits,
and it was with unfeigned satisfaction that she saw a man crossing one of
the ridges. He answered when she called and in a few minutes she stopped
close beside him. He was a tall man, wearing an old fur coat and
dilapidated fur cap; a rancher, she thought.

"Can you tell me where Leslie's house is?" she asked.

"Sure," said Wandle, pointing toward the east. "But as it will be dark
before you get there, you had better let me put you on the trail. You'll
have to cross these sandhills, and as the snow's blown off in places,
it's rough traveling."

Gertrude thanked him, and she was glad that he led the team as they
crossed the broken belt, picking out the smoothest course among the
clumps of birches and low steep ridges. At times he had difficulty in
urging the horses up a bank of frozen sand, but after a while he looked
around at her.

"You're Miss Jernyngham?" he said. "Guess you must have had a mighty
trying time?"

His tone was respectful and, though he was a stranger, Gertrude could not
resent the allusion to her troubles. She had generally found the western
ranchers blunt.

"Yes," she replied; "my father and I have had much to bear."

Wandle made a gesture of sympathy.

"The mystery's the worst--it's easier to face a trouble one knows all
about. What have the police been doing lately?"

"I don't know; they have told us nothing for some time."

"You find them kind of disappointing?"

"I believe my father does."

The man said nothing for a while, and then looked around again.

"Well," he ventured, "it strikes me there's one man Curtis ought to keep
his eye on."

Gertrude started and Wandle studied her face. He was observant and quick
to draw a conclusion, and he read something that surprised him in her
eyes. It was, he thought, a deeper feeling than suspicion; Miss
Jernyngham knew whom he meant and had some reason for being very bitter
against Prescott.

"Why do you say that?" she asked.

"All I've heard looks black against him," he answered with an air of
reflection. "What does your father think?"

"He is perplexed and distressed," said Gertrude coldly, deciding that the
man must not be allowed to go too far.

Wandle guessed her thoughts, but he was not to be daunted.

"That's natural. He must be anxious to learn the truth, and the police
haven't found out much yet--looks as if they were getting tired."

Gertrude hesitated, while he led the horses round a clump of birches. It
was painful and undignified to discuss the matter with a stranger, but
his manner was suggestive; she felt that he had something to tell.
Perhaps it was her duty to encourage him, and her suspicions of Prescott
drove her on. Wandle waited, knowing that she would speak.

"Is there anything that might be useful they have neglected doing?"

"It's hard to say. I'll allow that they've worked through the muskeg and
the bluffs pretty thoroughly; but do you know if they've made a good
search round Prescott's house?"

"No," said Gertrude eagerly; "I can't tell you that. But why should they
look there?"

Wandle considered. It would be awkward if she mentioned that she had had
a hint from him, but he did not think this would happen. There was a
greater probability of her acting as if the idea had originated with her.
He let the team stop and looked at her impressively.

"It strikes me as quite a likely place. I've heard of people hiding
things they wanted to get rid of in a bluff. You put it to your father
and see how the notion strikes him."

"I'll think of it," Gertrude replied coldly; but Wandle knew that she
would do as he had suggested.

He said nothing further until they had crossed another rise or two, when
he stopped and pointed to a bluff not far away.

"When you make those trees you'll strike the trail and it's pretty well
beaten. It will take you straight in to Leslie's."

Gertrude thanked him and drove on. It was getting dark, and a bitter wind
swept the waste, but at first she was scarcely conscious of the cold, for
her thoughts were busy. She felt that she had done wrong in allowing the
man to make the suggestion. Somehow it seemed to involve her in a plot
against Prescott; but of late she had tried to convince herself of his
guilt. After all, it was her duty to have the fullest investigation made
and the fellow had spoken in a significant manner. One could imagine that
he knew more than he had said.

Darkness closed in on the empty plain, the wind stung her face, the
loneliness grew intense, and she began to shiver in a mood of black
depression. The mystery of her brother's disappearance filled her with
keen anxiety; now she could no longer believe Prescott's assurance that
he was not dead. A little while ago she had trusted him and her cold
nature had suddenly expanded in the warmth of love, but the transforming
glow had suddenly died out, leaving her crushed, humiliated, and very
bitter. Even if her fears about Cyril proved unfounded, she had nothing
to look forward to except a life that had grown meaningless and dreary;
the brief passion she had yielded to would never be stirred again. She
was growing hard and cruel; her keenest desire was to punish the man who
had, as she thought of it, deceived her.

At length a light began to blink in the gloom ahead and soon afterward
she got down at the homestead, feeling very cramped and cold; but an hour
or two passed before she had an opportunity for speaking to her father
alone. It was easy to lead him on to talk of Cyril's disappearance, and
by and by she asked if the neighborhood of Prescott's homestead had been
searched. He caught at the idea.

"It's hard to understand why I didn't think of that!" he cried. "I have
lost all confidence in Curtis. What he is doing, or if he means to let
the matter drop, I don't know; but if Prescott has hidden anything that
might tell against him, it will of course be in the bluff! I'll go over
and examine every hollow among the bushes, without the police."

His expression grew eager and Gertrude, knowing that she had said enough,
left him quietly.



CHAPTER XXII

JERNYNGHAM MAKES A DISCOVERY


A piercing wind swept the lonely waste when Jernyngham left the homestead
in the afternoon. He went on foot, because it was no great distance to
the Prescott farm, and he had no wish to attract notice by driving up in
the sleigh. It was his intention to enter the bluff quietly a little
while before it got dark and, after searching it, to walk home. By doing
so he would run less risk of being seen, for it was undesirable that he
should put Prescott on his guard. He had said nothing about his plan to
any one except Gertrude, which was unfortunate, because Leslie, who could
read the signs of the weather, would have dissuaded him.

Jernyngham felt uneasy as he glanced across the plain. There was
something unusual in the light: every clump of scrub and bush in the
foreground stood out with a curious hard distinctness, though the
distance was blurred and dim. There was no horizon; the bluffs a few
miles off had faded into a hazy shapelessness. The sky was uniformly
gray, except in the north, where it darkened to a deep leaden color; the
cold struck through the man like a knife. He was, however, not to be
deterred; snow was coming and a heavy fall might make an effective search
impossible for the remainder of the winter. There was something
inexorable in his nature; his views were narrow, but he was true to them
and ruled himself and his dependents in accordance with a few fixed
principles. This was why he had driven out his son, and was now with the
same grim consistency bent on avenging him. He had a duty and he meant to
discharge it, in spite of raging blizzard or biting frost. Indeed, if
need be, he was willing to lay down the dreary life which had of late
grown valueless to him. Yet he was not without tenderness, and as he
plodded on over the frozen snow, he thought of the lost outcast with
wistful regret.

He reached the bluff, and stopped a few moments, slightly breathless,
among the first of the trees. They were small and their branches cut in
sharp, intricate tracery against the sky; farther back, the rows of
slender trunks ran together in a hazy mass, though they failed to keep
out the wind, and once or twice a fine flake touched the old man's face
with a cold that stung. He pulled his fur cap lower down and set about
the search. For half an hour he scrambled among thick nut bushes, kicking
aside the snow beneath them here and there; and then he plunged knee-deep
into the withered grass where a sloo had dried. The snow was thin in the
wood, but it hid the iron-hard ground so that he could not tell if it had
been disturbed. It was obvious that the chances were against his
discovering anything, but he persevered, working steadily nearer to the
homestead, of which he once or twice caught a glimpse where the trees
were thinner.

At length he stopped suddenly and cast a quick glance around. He had
heard a sharp crack behind him, but it was not repeated and there was
little to be seen. While he listened, the wind wailed among the branches
and the sloo grass rustled eerily. The patch of sky above him was growing
darker, and the wood looked, inexpressibly dreary; but as the light was
going, there was more reason for his making use of it. Though he was
getting tired, he pushed on; avoiding fallen trunks and branches where he
could, and floundering through thickets, he came to a small hollow which
traversed the bluff. As it was nearly filled with drifted snow, he
stepped down upon its white surface and, breaking through, sank above his
boots in withered leaves. These, he thought, would effectively hide
anything laid among them until it rotted and crumbled into their decay.
He followed up the hollow, kicking the snow aside. He fancied that he
heard the snapping sound again; but he was too eager to feel much
curiosity about the cause of it, and there was nothing to be seen. The
light was dying out rapidly, heavy snow was coming, and he must make the
best use of his time.

After a while, his foot struck something which did not yield as the
leaves had done, and dropping on his knees he dragged it out. A thrill of
excitement ran through him as he saw that is was a suit of clothes and
made out in the gathering dusk that their color was brown. Then, as he
rose with grim satisfaction, he saw with a start two indistinct figures
watching him a dozen yards away. They moved forward, and he recognized
the first of them as Curtis.

"Mr. Jernyngham?" said the corporal.

"Yes," said Jernyngham. "Who did you think it was?"

"Well," returned Curtis dryly, "we didn't expect to find you. What
brought you here?"

"I've been doing your work with more success than seems to have attended
your efforts." He pointed to the clothes. "To my mind, this is
conclusive."

An icy blast that set them shivering went roaring through the wood, but
they were too intent to heed it, and Curtis picked up one of the
garments. He could see only that it was a jacket, for darkness was
closing in suddenly.

"I'll allow it's kind of suggestive," he admitted guardedly.

Jernyngham broke into a contemptuous laugh.

"How was the man who sold my son's land dressed?"

"Smartly, in new clothes. The land agent remembered that they were a
reddish brown."

"That's the color of the thing in your hand. There was more light when I
pulled it out of the leaves yonder. Are you convinced now?"

"It's certainly enough to make one think."

"To think, but not to act! You seem strangely content with the former!
Isn't it plain that Prescott sold the land, and then, remembering that he
had worn a suit of rather unusual color which might help to identify him,
hid it in the bluff? Having other people in the house, he was, no doubt,
afraid to burn the clothes."

Curtis folded up the garments and laid them on his arm.

"Well," he said, "it sounds quite probable; but there are discrepancies.
I'll take these things along, and I guess you had better make for the
homestead and ask them to let you in. We'll have a lively blizzard down
on us very soon."

The trees bent above him as he spoke, the wood was filled with sound, and
fine flakes drove past in swirls. Then, as the wild gust subsided, they
heard a galloping horse going by outside the bluff and Curtis swung
sharply round toward his comrade.

"It's that blamed ranger of yours broken loose!" he cried. "Get after him
with my horse!"

The next moment the police had vanished and Jernyngham was left alone,
listening to the crackle of undergrowth, which was lost in a furious
uproar as the wood was swept by another gust. Then the thrashing trees
were blotted out by a white haze which stung his face with an intolerable
cold and filled his eyes. For a minute or two he could see nothing,
though he was conscious of a tumult of sound and broken twigs came
raining down upon him; then, lowering his head, he stumbled forward
between blurred trees, ignorant of where he was going. He struck one or
two of the trees and blundered into thickets, but at last he struggled
out of the wood and stopped for a few moments in dismay.

The light had gone; he could scarcely see a yard ahead, through the thick
white cloud that rushed past him. The wind buffeted him cruelly,
threatening to fling him down; the awful cold dulled his senses. He had
not intended to seek shelter at the homestead--the idea was repugnant--and
he hardly thought he meant to do so now, but, overwhelmed by the blizzard,
he could not stand still and freeze. Struggling heavily forward, he found
himself in the open; all trace of the wood had vanished; he could not tell
where he was heading, but he must continue moving to keep life in him. He
could no longer reason collectedly. He had not been trained to physical
endurance, and he was getting old; in the grip of the storm he was
helpless. By and by his steps grew feebler and his breath harder to get.
How long he stumbled on he could not remember; but at length he was
sensible of a faint brightness in the snow ahead and he made toward it in
a half-dazed fashion. It seemed to die out, leaving him in a state of dull
despair, but a few moments later something barred his way and stretching
out his mittened hand it fell upon the lapped boarding of a house. There
must be a door, he reasoned, and he groped along the wall until his hand
fell forward into a shallow recess. Then he knocked savagely.

There was no response. The gale shrieked about the building, flinging the
snow against it in clouds, and he realized that any noise he made was not
likely to be heard. He fumbled for a latch, and found a knob which his
numbed fingers failed to turn. Then in a fury he struck the door again,
each blow growing feebler than the last, until the cold overcame him and
he slipped down into the snow. He could not get up; even the desire to do
so grew fainter, and he sank into oblivion.

It did not last, however, and the return to consciousness was agonizing.
A strong light shone about him, though he could see nothing clearly, and
he felt as if a boiling fluid were trying to creep through his
half-frozen limbs; his hands and feet, in particular, tingled beyond
endurance, which, had he known it, was a favorable sign. Then somebody
gave him a hot drink and he heard voices which he vaguely recognized,
though he could not tell to whom they belonged. A little later, he was
lifted up and carried into a different room, where somebody laid him down
and wrapped clothing about him. The tingling pain passed away, he felt
delightfully warm, and that was all that he was conscious of as he sank
into heavy slumber.

It was daylight when he awakened, clear-headed and comfortable, and
recognized the room as the one he had previously occupied in Prescott's
house. It was obvious that he had slept for twelve or fourteen hours; and
seeing his clothes laid out, dry, upon a chair, he got up and dressed.
Then he went down to the living-room, where Prescott rose as he came in.

"You don't look much the worse," the rancher said. "You had a fortunate
escape."

"How did I get here?" Jernyngham asked, leaning on the back of a chair,
for he felt shaky still.

"That's more than I can tell. Svendsen found you outside the door when he
tried to get across to the stable. You couldn't have been there long: a
few minutes, I guess, though we didn't hear you. Do your feet and hands
feel right?"

Jernyngham was glad that his host made no inquiries as to what had
brought him into the neighborhood.

"Thank you, yes," he said. "I must assure you that I had no intention of
seeking shelter in your house."

"So I should imagine," Prescott answered smiling. "However, there ought
to be a truce between even the deadliest enemies where there's a blizzard
raging and the temperature's forty below. Though I can't say you have
treated me well, I'm glad you didn't get frozen, and if you'll sit down,
I'll tell Mrs. Svendsen to bring you in some breakfast."

"With what there is between us, you could hardly expect me to sit at your
table."

"That's a comfortable chair you have your hand on. Bring it nearer the
stove and let's try to look at the thing sensibly," Prescott persuaded.
"I'll confess that I'd have excused your visit, if it could have been
avoided, but as you already owe Svendsen and me something, it would be
rather forcing matters for you to drive away hungry. That strikes me as
about the limit of wrong-headedness, particularly as I'm not suggesting
that we should make friends."

The elder man was possessed by a fixed idea and his prejudices were
strong, but he was, nevertheless, a judge of character, and the rancher's
manner impressed him. He took the chair.

"I believe I owe my life to you or your hired man. I find the situation
embarrassing."

"It would be intolerable, if you were not mistaken about another point,"
Prescott said calmly. "Now I want your attention. I'm not anxious for
your good opinion--I don't know that I'd take it as a gift, after the way
you have persecuted me--but I've a pity for you that softens my
resentment."

Jernyngham moved abruptly, but Prescott raised his hand.

"Let me get through! I believe you're honest; you're acting from a sense
of duty, which is why I tell you that you're tormenting yourself without
a cause. I had no hand in your son's disappearance, and it's my firm
conviction that he's alive now and wandering through British Columbia
with a mineral prospector."

"What proof have you of this?"

"None that would satisfy you; nothing but my word, and I give you that
solemnly. Make your own inquires among my neighbors whether it's to be
believed."

For several moments Jernyngham fixed his eyes on him, and his suspicions
began to melt away. Truth had rung in Prescott's voice and it was stamped
on his face; no man, he thought, could lie and look as this rancher did.
Even the discovery of the brown clothes appeared less damaging.

"Then there's much to be explained," he said slowly.

"That's so. It will all come to light some day. And now, it's a bitter
morning, the drifts are deep, and the trail lost in snow; Svendsen will
have some trouble in driving you to Leslie's, and you can't go without
food."

Prescott called to Mrs. Svendsen, and she presently brought in breakfast.
Jernyngham ate a little before he got into the buggy and was driven away.
He reached the Leslie homestead greatly disturbed. The painful mystery
was as deep as ever, but he was inclined to think he had been following a
false clue; the man on whom all his suspicions had centered might be
innocent. It was so seldom that he changed his mind that he felt lost in
a maze of doubt, and in his perplexity he told Gertrude what he had found
and related his conversation with Prescott. They were alone and she
listened with fixed attention, studiously hiding her feelings behind an
inscrutable expression.

"I don't know what to think; for perhaps the first time in my life, I'm
utterly at a loss and need a lead," he said. "Everything we have learned
about the man tells against him, and yet I felt I could not doubt his
unsupported assurance. There was a genuine pride in the way he referred
me to his neighbors for his character for truthfulness and one must admit
that a number of them have an unshakable belief in him. Then Colston's
wavering; and Muriel has shown her confidence in the fellow in a striking
manner."

"Ah!" said Gertrude sharply. "You have noticed that?"

"I could hardly fail to do so. It is no affair of mine and perhaps a
breach of good manners to mention it, but if I were in Colston's place, I
should feel disturbed about the way in which his sister-in-law has taken
Prescott's part."

"Why?"

"The reason should be obvious. Leaving the man's guilt or innocence out
of the question, there is his position; I needn't enlarge on it. Muriel's
family is an old and honored one; it would be insufferable that she
should break away from its traditions. Then we know what her upbringing
has been. Could one calmly contemplate her throwing herself away on a
working farmer?"

He had appealed to his daughter's strongest prejudices, which had for a
while sunk into abeyance and then sprung into life again. All that he had
said about Muriel applied with equal force to her. She had yielded to a
mad infatuation, and returning sanity had brought her a crushing sense of
shame. She might have made a costly sacrifice for the rancher's sake,
flinging away all she had hitherto valued; she had sought him, humbled
herself to charm him, and he had never spared a tender thought for her.
Despising herself, her jealous rage and wounded pride could only be
appeased by his punishment.

"Prescott," she said coldly, "is a dangerous man; I have never met
anybody so insinuating and plausible. When he speaks to you, it's very
hard to disbelieve him; his manner's convincing."

"I felt that," said her father with a troubled air.

"Then shouldn't it put you on your guard, and make you test his
statements? Is it wise to let them influence you before they're
confirmed?"

"It was foolish of me to be impressed; but still----"

Gertrude checked him.

"With us suspicion is a duty. Try to think! Cyril had his failings, but
you were harsh to him. You showed him no pity; you drove him out."

"It's true," admitted Jernyngham in a hoarse voice. "I've regretted it
deeply."

She knew she had not appealed in vain to her father's grief and she meant
to work upon his desire for retribution.

"Cyril came here and fell into Prescott's hands. Instead of his meeting
Colston, the rancher personated him. He was the last man to see him; he
knew where he had hidden his money; soon afterward he bought a costly
machine."

"I know all this," said Jernyngham wearily.

"There seems to be some danger of your forgetting it! Let me go on!
Prescott took over control of Cyril's farm. He passed himself off for him
a second time and sold land of his; you found the clothes he wore hidden
near his house. Could you have any proofs more conclusive?"

Jernyngham flung her a swift glance.

"You believed him once. You are very bitter now."

"Yes," she said, "I have admitted that he is plausible; he deceived me.
Perhaps that has made me more relentless; but I have lost my brother, and
I loved him."

Her father's face grew very stern, and he clenched his hand.

"I have lost my son, and I wronged him."

Then there was silence for a few moments; but Gertrude knew she had
succeeded. Her father had been wavering, but she had stirred him to
passion, and his thoughts had suddenly returned to the groove they would
not leave again. The fixed idea had once more possessed him; unavailing
sorrow and longing for justice would drive him on along the course he had
chosen.

"You have reminded me of my duty," he said with grim forcefulness. "I
shall not fail in it."

Then he got up and left her sitting still, lost in painful reflection.
His motives were honest and blameless; but she had not this consolation.
She tried to find comfort in the thought that if Prescott were innocent,
he had nothing to fear.



CHAPTER XXIII

A NIGHT RIDE


It was six o'clock in the evening. Curtis had just finished his supper
and sat drowsily content in his quarters at the police post after being
out in the frost all day. The temperature had steadily fallen since
morning and the cold was now intensified by a breeze that drove scattered
clouds across the moon and flung fine snow against the board walls, but
the stove, which glowed a dull red, kept the room comfortable. A nickeled
lamp shed down a cheerful light, and the tired corporal looked forward to
a long night's rest. Private Stanton sat near him, cleaning a carbine.

"It's curious you have heard nothing from Regina since you sent up those
clothes," he remarked. "It looked pretty bad for Prescott."

"I don't know," said Curtis. "Have you ever seen him with that suit on?"

"No."

"Nor has anybody else, so far as I can learn. There's another point--the
land agent talked of a tall, stoutish man. You wouldn't call Prescott
that."

"Those clothes were 'most as good as new; he might have only had them on
the once," Stanton persisted.

"That's what struck me; I don't know how they looked so good, if they'd
been lying where Jernyngham found them, since last summer."

"It's a thing I might have thought of."

"You have a good deal to learn yet." Curtis smiled tolerantly.

"Anyhow, I found you a photograph of Prescott, and you were glad to send
it along to Regina. What do you think our bosses are doing about it?"

"Lying low, like sensible men; the more we find out about this case, the
more puzzling it gets. You think you have pretty good eyes, don't you?"

"They're as good as anybody's I've come across yet."

"Well, you searched the bluff several times in daylight and didn't see
those clothes. Jernyngham comes along when it is getting dark and finds
them. How do you account for that?"

"I've quit guessing; I'll leave the thing to you. Anyhow, I've had about
enough of Jernyngham; talked to me like a sergeant instructor last time I
met him, and you'd have felt proud if you'd seen the way he smiled when I
told him he had better go to you."

"We'll leave it at that," said Curtis. "The man's making me tired, and
he's worse than he was a month ago. Where's that Brandon paper?"

While Stanton looked for it there was a sound of wheels and a hail
outside, and a stinging draught swept in when the trooper opened the
door. A fur-wrapped man sat in a wagon holding up an envelope.

"For Curtis; come for it," he said. "Operator asked me to bring it along.
I'm 'most too cold to get down and I can't let the team stand."

The envelope slipped from his numbed fingers as Stanton tried to take it.

"Dropped near the wheel. My hand's 'most frozen, though I've good thick
mittens on. It's about the coldest night I've been out in."

He drove on, and Stanton hurried in and flung the door to before he
handed the telegram to Curtis.

When the corporal opened it his face grew intent.

"It's from Sergeant Crane," he said. "Glover was seen this morning near
Norton, heading east on the Sand Belt trail."

Stanton's face fell. He had been in the saddle the greater part of the
day, and the prospect of spending the night in pursuit of Glover did not
appeal to him, though he knew it could not be avoided. The man was a
notorious thief, whose last exploit had shown some ingenuity. Appearing
at the house of a prosperous farmer, he had shown him a letter from a
railroad contractor asking for the use of his best Clydesdale team on
tempting terms. The farmer let the horses go and saw no more of them,
while the contractor repudiated the letter. Glover was also supposed to
have had a hand in one or two more serious affairs.

"I guess we'll have to get after him," said the trooper. "Where'll he
make for?"

"Jepson's, sure. I don't know another house near the Sand Belt he could
reach to-night, and Jepson's most as slippery a tough as Glover is."

"It's a mighty long ride," said Stanton, "My ranger will stand for it; I
don't know about your gray."

"He'll have to make it," Curtis answered shortly. "Get your saddle on."

When Stanton went out Curtis stood up regretfully, for he was aching from
a long journey in the stinging cold and the room looked very comfortable.
An effort was required to leave it, and he had not much expectation of
making a capture that would stand to his credit. Jepson and his brother
were cunning rogues; Glover had escaped once or twice already, and Curtis
realized that the chances were in favor of his returning after a
fruitless ride. Nevertheless, his duty was plain; he had been trained to
disregard fatigue and most physical weaknesses, and he went out
resignedly into the arctic frost.

They set off a few minutes later, and Curtis had the depressing feeling
that he was riding a worn-out mount, though there was some consolation in
the thought that the range of the service carbine might, in case of
necessity, make up for his lack of speed. When he met the biting north
wind that swept the plain the warmth seemed to leave his body; his
mittened hands stiffened on the bridle, and it was only resolution that
kept him in the saddle. He would run less risk of frost-bite if he
walked, but time would not permit this and the claims of the service are
more important than the loss of a trooper's feet or hands. If he were
crippled and incapacitated, there was a small pension; it was his
business to face the risks of the weather.

They rode on with lowered heads, fine snow stinging their faces now and
then, and though its touch was inexpressibly painful they were glad they
retained the power of feeling. When that went, more serious trouble would
begin. For a while a half moon shone down, and their black shadows sped
on before them across the glittering plain, but by and by clouds drove up
and the prairie grew dim. It changed to a stretch of soft grayish-blue,
with the trail they followed running across it a narrow stretch of darker
color. The light, however, was not wholly obscured; they could see a
bluff stand out, a bank of shadow, a mile away. Once they saw the
cheerful lights of a farm in the distance and a longing for warmth and
the company of their fellow-creatures seized them, but this was a desire
that must be subdued, and, leaving the beaten trail they pressed on into
the waste. Save for the faint, doleful sound the wind made it was
dauntingly silent and desolate. There was not a bush to break its gray
surface, and the frost was intense. They bore it uncomplainingly for an
hour or two, and then Stanton broke out:

"I'll have to get down or I'll lose my foot! I'll run a while beside my
horse and then catch you up."

Curtis nodded and trotted on, breasting the wind which, so far as he
could judge from his sensations, was turning him into ice. He could hear
Stanton behind him, but that was the only sound of life in the vast
desolation. After a while the trooper came up at a gallop, and Curtis
called to him sharply:

"Any better?"

"No feeling in my foot yet," said Stanton. "I'm anxious about it, but I
couldn't drop too far behind you. We have no time to lose."

"That's so," Curtis answered. "Glover will pull out from Jepson's long
before morning. He won't rest much until he's a day's ride from the
nearest post."

They went on, and some time later the moon shone through again, flooding
the plain with light. It was welcome because they were now entering the
Sand Belt where scrub trees were scattered among little hills. Pushing
through it, they came to a taller ridge late at night, and Curtis drew
bridle on its summit. A faint, warm gleam appeared on the snow about a
mile away.

"Jepson's," said Curtis. "Looks as if he had some reason for sitting up
quite a while after he ought to be in bed."

Stanton glanced thoughtfully down the slope in front. It was smooth and
unbroken, a long, gradual descent, and he knew the farm stood on the flat
at its foot. A straggling poplar bluff grew close up to the back of the
buildings, but there was nothing that would cover the approach of the
police, and he had no doubt that a watch was being kept.

"It's a pity the moon's so bright," he remarked. "There's a cloud or two
driving up, but I don't know that they'll cover it."

"We can't wait. This is my notion--you'll turn back a piece and work down
to the ravine that runs east behind the homestead. Stop when you can find
cover and watch out well. I'll have to ride straight in."

"You want to be careful. There'll be three of them in the place, counting
Glover, and they're a tough crowd."

Curtis smiled.

"Jepson has a pretty long head. He'll bluff, if he can, but he won't get
himself into trouble for his partner. The thing's not serious enough for
that."

"Anyway, you want to keep your eye on them," Stanton persisted.
"Glover'll sure make for the ravine if he breaks out."

Turning his horse, he disappeared behind the ridge, while Curtis rode on
toward the farm. Glancing up at the moon, he saw that the clouds were
nearer it, though he could not be certain that they would obscure the
light. This was unfortunate, because he knew that he and his horse would
stand out sharply against the smooth expanse of snow. The light ahead
grew brighter as he trotted on, urging his jaded mount in order to give
the inmates of the homestead as short a warning as possible. Suddenly
another patch of brightness appeared. It was a narrow streak at first,
but it widened into an oblong and then went out. Somebody had opened the
door of the homestead, and the next moment the first gleam faded and all
was dark. Curtis was inclined to think this a mistake on Jepson's part,
but he kept a very keen watch as the buildings grew into plainer shape
against the shadowy bluff. He knew he must have been visible some minutes
earlier.

At length he rode up to the little square house, which rose abruptly from
the plain without fence or yard. It was dark and silent, and he was glad
to remember that it had only one door, though there were one or two
buildings close behind it. He was so numbed that it was difficult to
dismount, but he got down clumsily and beat on the door for several
minutes without getting an answer. This confirmed his suspicions, for he
was convinced that Jepson had heard his vigorous knocking. Then the
moonlight, which might have been useful now, died away, and the plain
faded into obscurity. Curtis was making another attack on the door when a
window above was flung up and a man leaned out, holding what looked
suggestively like a rifle.

"Stand back from that door!" he cried. "What in thunder do you want?"

"Drop your gun!" said Curtis. "Come down right now and let me in!"

"I guess not! If you don't light out of this mighty quick, you'll get
hurt!"

"Quit fooling, Jepson! You know who I am!"

"Seem to know your voice now," said the other, leaning farther out. "Why,
it's Curtis!" He laid down the rifle and laughed. "You were near getting
plugged. Figured you were one of those blamed rustlers--the country's
full of them--Barton back at the muskeg lost a steer last week. What I
want to know is--why the police don't get after them? Guess it would be
considerably more useful than walking round the stations with a quirt
under your arm."

The man was not talkative as a rule, and Curtis surmised that he wished
to delay him.

"Come down!" he said sternly.

"I'll be along quick as I can," the other answered, and shut the window.

While he waited, Curtis listened with strained attention. He was inclined
to think that Glover had already left the house, which must nevertheless
be searched, but he could hear nothing except the dreary wail of wind in
the neighboring bluff. His fingers were so numbed that he could scarcely
hold his carbine, his horse stood wearily with drooping head, and when a
minute or two had passed Curtis struck the door violently. It opened, and
Jepson stood in the entrance, holding a lamp.

"All alone?" he remarked good-humoredly. "Where's your partner? But come
in; it's fierce to-night."

"Then stand out of my way. I've come for Glover."

Jepson laughed.

"Looked as if you were after somebody. He isn't here, but you had better
see for yourself. Walk right in; you're welcome to find him."

The house contained four small rooms, which had nothing in them that
would hide a man, and in a minute or two Curtis sprang out of the door
and scrambled to his saddle. He did not think Glover would seek refuge in
any of the outbuildings, and he rode toward the thin bluff that hid the
ravine. The man might have reached the trees, unseen, by keeping the
house between himself and the slope down which Curtis had come. He had
not left the house long before he heard the sharp drumming of a gallop,
and drove his horse at the belt of timber. All had turned out as he had
expected. Stanton had headed off Glover as he slipped away down the
ravine, and the outlaw had broken out to the north, making for a tract of
lonely, bluff-strewn country. He was now between the corporal and the
trooper, and his capture might be looked for, provided that Curtis's
mount could bear a sharp gallop, which was doubtful.

The sides of the ravine were steep and clothed with brush, there were
fallen logs in the fringing bluff, but Curtis urged his jaded horse
mercilessly toward the timber, and went through it with rotten branches
smashing under him. Once or twice the beast stumbled, but it kept its
feet, and in a few more moments they reeled down the declivity. A fall
might result in the rider's getting a broken leg and afterward freezing
to death, but Curtis took risks of this nature lightly, and, reaching the
bottom safely, somewhat to his surprise, he struggled up the opposite
ascent.

From the summit he saw two dark, mounted figures pressing across the open
plain some distance apart. By riding straight out from the ravine he
thought that he could cut off the leader. His weariness had fallen from
him, the mad drumming of hoofs fired his blood, and as he burst out of
the timber at a gallop the moon came through. The fugitive seemed to hear
him, for he altered his course a little--he could not swerve much without
approaching Stanton--and for a few minutes Curtis shortened the distance
between them. Then his horse began to flag; it looked as if Glover might
escape, after all, though he must still draw nearer to the trooper before
he got away.

Curtis, roughly calculating speed and distance, pulled up his horse.
Springing from the saddle, he flung himself down in the snow, and for a
few seconds gripped his carbine tight. Then there was a flash and little
spirts of snow leaped up one after another ahead of the outlaw. Curtis
pressed down the rear sight and fired again; but Glover was still riding
hard, with Stanton dropping behind him. At the third shot Glover's horse
went down in a struggling heap, hiding its rider. A few moments later the
man reappeared, and began to run, but he stopped as Stanton came down on
him at a gallop, and Curtis got up hastily. Glover made a sign of
submission, and the next minute Stanton sprang to the ground beside him.

"Hold up your hands!" he ordered sharply, and there was a clink as the
irons snapped to.

After that the trooper turned to Curtis, who was hurrying toward them.

"Lend me your carbine; mine's clean."

He walked to the fallen horse, which was struggling feebly, and, stooping
down he examined it. Then there was a crash and a puff of smoke, and he
rejoined the corporal.

"Nothing else that could be done," he explained.

Curtis spoke to the prisoner.

"Come along. You had better not try to break away."

They went back to the homestead where they found Jepson waiting for them.
He looked disturbed.

"I told you he wasn't here," he said. "How was I to know he was hiding in
the ravine?"

Curtis gave him a searching glance.

"We'll consider that later. I want your team and wagon, some blankets,
and driving-robes."

"Am I bound to outfit the police?"

"I guess you had better. Your record's none too good."

He led his prisoner into the kitchen, where the stove was burning, and,
laying his carbine on the table, he loosed the handcuffs and bade the man
take off his long coat.

"Go through his pockets, Stanton," he said.

The trooper did as he was told, but nothing of any importance was
produced. The man was not armed, and there were only a few silver coins
and bills for small amounts in his possession. Curtis stood wearily,
regarding him with a thoughtful smile.

"Where did you get that jacket, Glover?" he asked.

"Where do you generally get such things? At the store."

"Just so," said Curtis. "I can't see why you didn't buy one that fitted
you." He turned suddenly to Jepson. "Bring me his jacket."

The farmer made an abrupt movement, and then seemed to pull himself up,
and stood still.

"I've no use for that kind of fooling; he has it on!"

"I don't think so," said Curtis meaningly. "Give Stanton a light and
he'll look for it."

The trooper came back in a few minutes with a garment which he had found
under a bed, and Curtis bade him put it on the prisoner.

"Right size, same stuff as the trousers, and worn about as much," he
remarked. "Now you can take it off and search it."

There was nothing in the pockets, but after a careful examination Stanton
felt a lump inside the lining. He ripped that, and took out a wad of
carefully folded bills. On opening them, he found that they were for
twenty dollars each, and clean. The corporal's face grew suddenly intent.

"Where did you get them?" he asked.

"You can find out!" muttered Glover, who had shown signs of dismay.

Curtis turned to Jepson.

"It looks as if he trusted you farther than I would; but harness your
team quick, and if your brother's hanging round outside, tell him that
he'll run up against trouble if he interferes."

They sat down and waited until the farmer brought a wagon to the door,
and then they drove away through the stinging cold with their prisoner.



CHAPTER XXIV

MURIEL PROVES OBDURATE


Some time after leaving Jepson's Curtis was joined by two police
troopers, despatched by the sergeant who had telegraphed to him. He
handed over his prisoner and the wagon to them, though he asked
permission to keep the wad of bills. Then Stanton unhitched the jaded
horses from the back of the vehicle, and while the others drove back to
the west he and Curtis rode on to the post. Reaching it, half frozen, in
the morning, they filled up the stove and went to sleep until supper
time. When the meal was over they sat down to smoke and talk.

Stanton felt lazily good-humored. A sound sleep had refreshed him, and
though his limbs still ached, he was enjoying the pleasant, physical
reaction which usually succeeds fatigue and exposure to the arctic frost.
What was better, he had assisted in the successful completion of an
arduous piece of work. Curtis lay back in a chair opposite him, pipe in
mouth, his expression suggesting quiet satisfaction.

"Toes feeling pretty good?" he inquired by and by.

"I'm glad to say they are, though I thought I was in for trouble,"
Stanton said with a deprecatory smile. "I allow that frost-bite's a thing
I'm easy scared about, after the patrol I made with Stafford through the
northern bush last winter. Got his foot wet with mushy snow crossing a
rapid where the ice was working, and it froze bad; had to pack him the
last two hundred miles on the sled, with the dogs getting used up, and
the grub running out. They paid him off at Regina and sent him home; but
Stafford will never put on an ordinary boot again."

"A frozen foot's bad enough, if you have to walk until it galls," Curtis
admitted. "A hand's easier looked after, though I've three fingers I'm
never quite sure of. That's one reason it took so much shooting before I
plugged Glover's horse."

"You were pretty cute about his jacket," Stanton remarked.

"That was easy enough. The thing was too big for him and newer than his
trousers. Soon as I noticed it, I knew I'd dropped on to something worth
following up."

"I can't see what you made of it, and you haven't told me yet."

"I was too dog-goned cold and tired to talk; wanted to make the post and
get to sleep. However, though I gave Crane's boys no hint, I'll show you
what I've been figuring on. Consider yourself a jury and tell me how it
strikes you. You have as much intelligence as the general run of them."

"If I hadn't any more than the kind of jurymen we're usually up against,
I'd quit the service," Stanton declared.

The corporal's eyes twinkled.

"If you'll learn to think and not hustle, you'll make a useful man some
day. Anyhow, the first thing I caught on to was that Glover had taken off
his jacket because there was something in it he didn't want us to find.
Next, that it was money or valuables, because he could have put any small
thing into the stove or hid it in the snow before he lit out. Now, Glover
knew it was kind of dangerous to leave his jacket with Jepson, who might
find the bills, and as he couldn't tell you were in the ravine he must
have thought he had a good chance of getting clear away; but, for all
that, he wouldn't risk taking the wad along. Guess there's only one
explanation--he'd a reason for being mighty afraid of those bills falling
into our hands. That was plain enough when I asked him about his jacket."

"Yes," Stanton said thoughtfully; "I guess you have got it right. But
what was his reason? He knows Crane can have him sent up for
horse-stealing."

Curtis, opening a drawer, took out a slip of paper with some numbers on
it, and then laid the wad of bills on the table.

"Twenty dollars each, Merchants' Bank, and quite clean," he said.

"It was a five-dollar bill on the same bank we found at the muskeg!"
cried Stanton, starting.

"It was." Curtis took up the list. "Now here are the numbers of the
twenty-dollar bills Morant at Sebastian got from the bank a day or two
before he made the deal with Jernyngham; it was with those bills he paid
him the night he disappeared." He paused and added significantly, "I
guess we have got some of them here."

This proved to be correct when they had compared them with the list. Then
Curtis leaned back in his chair and filled his pipe.

"It's a mighty curious case," he remarked.

"Sure," replied Stanton. "You get no farther with it. You have points
against three different men, and it's pretty clear that they haven't been
working together. They can't all have killed the man."

"That's true. Well, I've made a report for Regina, and they'll keep
Glover safe until we want him. I can't tell what our chiefs will do; but
as Glover's not likely to tell them anything, I guess they'll hold this
matter over until we find out more." He locked up the money. "Now we'll
quit talking about it. I want to give my mind a rest."

Curtis had few of the qualities needed for the making of a great
detective; he was merely a painstaking, determined man, with a capacity
for earnest work, which is perhaps more useful than genius in the ranks
of the Northwest Police. He could tirelessly follow the dog-sleds,
sometimes on the scantiest rations, for hundreds of miles over the snow,
sleeping in the open in the arctic frost. He had made long forced marches
to succor improvident settlers starving far out in the wilds; in the
fierce heat of summer he made his patrols, watching the progress of the
grass-fires, sternly exacting from the ranchers the plowing of the needed
guards; and cattle-thieves prudently avoided the district that he ruled
with firm benevolence. The man was a worthy type of his people, the new
nation that is rising in the West: forceful, steadfast, direct, and, as a
rule, devoid of mental subtleties. He admitted that the Jernyngham
mystery, every clue to which broke off as he began to follow it, was
harassing him.

While he spent the evening, lounging in well-earned leisure beside the
stove, Mrs. Colston was talking seriously to her sister in a room of the
Leslie homestead. Owing to the number of its inmates, she had found it
difficult to get a word with the girl alone, and now that an opportunity
had come, she felt that she must make the most of it.

"Muriel," she said, "do you think it's judicious to speak so strongly in
Prescott's favor as you have done of late? You were rude to Gertrude last
night."

The girl colored. She had, as a matter of fact, lost her temper, which
was generally quick.

"I hate injustice!" she broke out. "Gertrude and her father make such an
unfair use of everything they can find against him, and I think
Gertrude's the worse of the two." She looked hard at her sister. "She
shows a rancor against the man which even the disappearance of her
brother doesn't account for."

The same idea had occurred to Mrs. Colston, but it was a side issue and
she was not to be drawn away from the point.

"You stick to the word disappearance," she said.

"Yes," Muriel answered steadily. "Cyril Jernyngham isn't dead!"

"You have only Prescott's word for that."

Muriel made no answer for a few moments; then she looked up with a
resolute expression.

"I'm satisfied with it!"

Her sister understood this as a challenge. She had indulged in hints and
indirect warnings, and they had been disregarded. The situation now
needed more drastic treatment.

"That," she said, "is a significant admission; I can't let it pass. Your
prejudice in favor of the man has, of course, been noticeable; you have
even let him see it. Don't you realize what damaging conclusions one
might draw from it?"

"Damaging?" Muriel's eyes were fixed on her sister, though her face was
hot. "As you have been thinking of all this for some time, perhaps you
had better explain and get it over."

Mrs. Colston leaned forward with a severe expression.

"I feel that some candor is necessary. You have taken the man's side
openly; you have sympathized with him; I might even say that you have led
him on."

Muriel's wayward temperament drove her to the verge of an outbreak, but
with an effort at self-control, she sat still, and her sister resumed:

"Besides his lying under suspicion, the man is a mere working farmer,
imperfectly educated, forced to live in a most primitive manner, thinking
of nothing but his crops and horses."

"He is not imperfectly educated! As a matter of fact, he knows more about
most things than we do; but that's not important. Mind, I'm admitting
nothing of all that you suggest, but you might have said that I'm a
penniless girl, living on your husband's charity. I must confess that he
gives it very willingly."

"That is precisely why I'm anxious about your future." Mrs. Colston's
voice softened to a tone of genuine solicitude. "Of course, we are glad
to have you--Harry has always been fond of you--but, for your sake, I
could wish you a completer life in a home of your own. But so much
depends on the choice you make."

"Yes; a very great deal depends on that. I'm expected, of course, to make
a brilliant match!"

"Not necessarily brilliant, but there are things we have always enjoyed
which must be looked for--a good name, position, the right to meet people
brought up as we have been, on an equal footing."

Muriel broke in upon her with a strained laugh.

"Once, for a little while, it looked as if we should have to do without
them, and somehow I wasn't very much alarmed. But your list's rather
short and incomplete. There are one or two quite as important things you
might have added to it; though perhaps I'm exacting."

There was silence for a few moments, and a faint flicker of color crept
into Mrs. Colston's face while the girl mused. Her sister had got all she
asked for, but Muriel suspected that she was not content; now and then,
indeed, she had seen a hint of weariness in her expression. Harry Colston
made a model husband in some respects, but he had his limitations. His
virtues were commonplace and sometimes tedious; his intelligence was less
than his wife's. Muriel was fond of him, but his unwavering good-nature
and placidity irritated her. She was inclined to be sorry for her sister
in some ways.

"Muriel," Mrs. Colston resumed gently, "your happiness means a good deal
to me. A mistake might cost you dear, and, after all, one cannot have
everything."

"That is obviously true. I suppose it's a question of what one values
most, or perhaps what most strongly appeals to one's fancy. It would be
difficult to fix an accurate standard for judging suitors by, wouldn't
it?" Then her tone grew scornful. "Besides, as those who are eligible
aren't numerous, a girl's expected to wait with an encouraging smile and
thankfully take what comes."

Mrs. Colston looked at her reproachfully.

"You're hardly just, my dear; I only urge you to be prudent now."

"Prudence is such a cold-blooded thing! I'm afraid I never had it. After
all, what seems wise to me might appear to be folly to you. I think if
ever what looks like a chance of happiness is offered me, I shall take
all risks and clutch at it."

She picked up a book, as if to intimate that she had no more to say, and
Mrs. Colston wondered whether her worst fears were justified or whether
Muriel had been behaving with unusual perverseness. In either case, she
might make things worse by laboring the subject. She hesitated a moment
and then went out in search of her husband.

"Harry," she said, "we have been away a long while. Don't you think it is
time to go home?"

"No," he answered; "I haven't thought so. What suggested the idea?"

It was obvious that he had no suspicion of her motive, and she was not
prepared to explain that she wished to place Muriel beyond Prescott's
reach.

"Well," she said lamely, "aren't you rather neglecting your duties?"

"No," Colston replied with a smile; "as they're to a large extent merely
formal ones, I believe they can wait a little longer without much harm
being done."

Mrs. Colston was surprised. She had not expected such an admission from
her husband, though she agreed with him. Harry was not, as a rule,
susceptible to new impressions, but there was a subtle influence in the
simple life on the prairies which altered one's point of view and led to
one's forming a new estimate of values. She had felt this. Things which
had seemed essential in England somehow lost their importance in Canada.

"Besides," he resumed, "you will remember that I made arrangements to be
away a year, if necessary, and perhaps if I make the most of my
opportunities in this country, I may have something worth while to say
when we go home again."

This was more in his usual vein; but his wife did not encourage him.
Harry was apt to grow tiresome in his improving mood.

"But you don't think of staying the full year?" she asked in alarm.

"Oh, no; we might wait another week or two, or even a month more. It
wouldn't be the thing to desert Jernyngham; and, as we're mixed up in it,
I feel it would be better to see the matter through." He smiled at his
wife with cumbrous gallantry. "Then, though you always look charming,
you're now unusually fresh and fit; there's no doubt that the place
agrees with you."

Mrs. Colston could not deny it. She yielded for the present, deciding to
wait until some turn of events rendered him more amenable. In spite of
his good humor, Harry was obstinate and often hard to move.

She went to join Gertrude, while Muriel, sitting alone where she had been
left, laid down her book, and let her eyes range slowly round the room,
trying to analyze the impression it made on her. There was no carpet on
the floor; the walls were made of mill-dressed boards which had cracked
with the dryness and smelt of turpentine. The furniture consisted of a
few bent-hardwood chairs and a rickety table covered with a gaudy cloth.
The nickeled lamp, which diffused an unpleasant odor, was of florid but
very inartistic design; the plain stove stood in an ugly iron tray, and
its galvanized pipe ran up, unconcealed, to the ceiling. A black
distillate had trickled down from a bend in it, and stained the floor.

Muriel realized that had she been expected to live in such a place in
England it would have struck her as comfortless, and almost squalid; but
now, perhaps by contrast with the frozen desolation without, it looked
cheerful, and had a homelike air. This, she thought, was significant, and
she followed up the train of ideas to which it led. She had a practical,
independent bent; she liked to handle and investigate things for herself,
to get into close and intimate touch with life. At home, this had not
often been possible; she was too sheltered and, in a sense, too secluded.
The people she met were conventional, acting in accordance with a
recognized code, concealing their feelings. If she rode or drove,
somebody got ready the horse for her; it was the same with the car. When
she strolled through an English garden, she might pluck a flower or take
pleasure in the smoothness of the lawn, but it was always with the
feeling that others had planted and mown. She could take no active part
in things; there was little that she could really do.

It was different on the Western prairie. Here men and women showed anger
or sorrow or gladness more or less openly. One could realize their
emotions, and this, instead of deterring, attracted her; one came to
close grips with the primitive influences of human nature. Then they were
strenuous people, toiling stubbornly, rejoicing in tangible results that
their hands and brains had produced. Woman was man's real helpmate, not a
companion for his idle hours. She kept his house, and in time of pressure
drove his horses; she had her say in determining the count of the cattle
and the bushels of seed, and it was sometimes conceded that her judgment
was the better.

But this was only one aspect of the subject that filled the girl's
thoughts. She knew that Prescott loved her and she was glad of it; but
here she stopped. She was sanguine, impulsive, courageous, but, with all
that could be said for it, the change she must face if he claimed her was
a startling one. Besides, he must clear himself of suspicion, and because
the part of a mere looker-on was uncongenial, there was a course which
she would urge on him. She must see him and convince him of the necessity
for it. Soon after she had made up her mind on this point, Jernyngham and
Colston came in, and she had to talk to them.



CHAPTER XXV

A WOMAN'S INFLUENCE


Muriel found it needful to wait several days for an opportunity for
speaking to Prescott. It did not seem advisable to visit his house again,
and she was at a loss for a means of meeting him when she overheard
Leslie tell his wife that he would ask Prescott, who was going to
Sebastian the next morning, to bring out some stores they required. The
next day Muriel borrowed a team and, contenting herself with an
intimation that she was going for a long drive, set off for the
settlement. It would be time enough to confess her object if her sister
taxed her with it, and there were one or two purchases she really wished
to make.

She had never gone so far alone, though she had occasionally driven to an
outlying farm, and the expedition had in it the zest of adventure.
Moreover, she was boldly going to undertake a very unusual task in
showing Prescott what he ought to do. So far, she had been an interested
spectator of the drama of life, but now she would participate in it,
exercising such powers as she possessed, and the thought was additionally
fascinating because among her intimate friends she could not pick out a
man who owed much to a woman's guidance. Her sister had some mental
gifts, but Harry Colston, disregarding her in a good-humored but dogged
fashion, did what he thought best; while the idea of Jernyngham's
deferring to Gertrude was frankly ridiculous. Neither man had much
ability; indeed, it was, as a rule, the dullest men who were most
convinced of their superior sense. Prescott far surpassed them in
intellect; but she pulled herself up. She was not going to dwell on
Prescott's virtues unduly, and she had not convinced him yet.

The team gave her no trouble, the trail was good, and reaching Sebastian
safely, she spent some time in a drygoods store, and afterward went to
the hotel, where supper was being served. She would not have waited for
it, only that she had seen nothing of Prescott, and she had the excuse
that the team must have a rest. On entering the big dining-room she was
inclined to regret that meals can rarely be had in private in the West,
although, by the favor of a waitress, she succeeded in obtaining a small
table to herself. There were only two women present, clerks in the store,
she believed, but the room was nearly filled with men. Among them were
ranchers with faces darkened by the glare of the snow, some of them
wearing shabby coats from which the fur was coming off, though the room
was warm; a few railroad hands who laid sooty mittens on the table; the
smart station-agent; a number of storekeepers and clerks. Now and then
boisterous laughter rang out, and one group indulged in rather pointed
banter, while the way that several of them used their knives and forks
left much to be desired; but nobody regarded the girl with marked
attention. For all that, she was sensible of some relief when Prescott
came in and moved toward her table.

"May I take this place?" he asked.

"Of course," she said.

After speaking to a waitress, he inquired whether Colston or her sister
were at the hotel.

"No; I drove in alone."

She saw his surprise, which suggested that her task might prove more
difficult than she had imagined.

"Well," he said, "the trail's pretty good and there's a moon to-night;
but didn't you hesitate about getting supper here by yourself?"

"Not very much; there was really no reason why I should hesitate."

"That's true. But you had your doubts?"

"They were foolish," Muriel told him. "Why are you so curious?"

"I'm interested." He indicated the room and its occupants. "These people,
their manners, and surroundings are typical of the New West."

"Do you feel that you ought to defend them?"

"Oh, no! They don't need it. They have their faults and their virtues,
and neither are mean. They've the makings of a big nation and they're
doing great work to-day. However, you had certainly no cause for
uneasiness; there's not a man in the place who would have shown you the
least disrespect."

"After all," Muriel contended, "they're not your people. You came from
Montreal; your ideas and habits are more like ours than theirs."

"They're mine by adoption; I've thrown in my lot with them." He fixed his
eyes on her. "Do you know the secret of making colonization a success? In
a way, it's a hard truth, but it's this--there must be no looking back.
The old ties must be cut loose once for all; a man must think of the land
in which he prospers as his home; it's not a square deal to run back with
the money he has made in it. He must grow up with the rising nation he
becomes a member of."

"Yes," Muriel conceded slowly; "I think that is so. But it's harder for a
woman."

"And yet have you seen any one who looked unhappy?"

"No," she admitted with thoughtful candor. "The few I have got to know
seem to have an importance that perhaps is not very common at home. For
instance, I heard Leslie giving his wife his reasons for thinking of
buying some Hereford cattle, and his respect for her opinion impressed
me."

Prescott smiled.

"If I were going to sell those beasts, I'd rather make the deal with her
husband."

Then he changed the subject and they talked in a lighter vein until the
room began to empty and a waitress came to collect the plates.

"Don't they close this place as soon as supper is finished?" Muriel
asked, trying to overcome her diffidence. "Where can I have a word or two
with you? I was afraid that somebody might overhear us here."

"The parlor would be best," he answered in some surprise. "The boys
prefer the downstairs room and the bar. I'll tell the man about my horse,
and then I'll be there."

Muriel found the few minutes she had to wait trying, but she gathered her
courage when he joined her.

"Sit down," she said with an air of decision. "I'd better begin at once,
and the thing is serious. What have you done to clear yourself, since I
last saw you?"

His searching glance filled her with misgivings; without being subtle, he
was by no means dull, and he must be curious about her motive in asking
him. To her relief, however, he confined himself to the point she had
raised.

"Nothing. I don't see what can be done."

"Then are you content to remain suspected?"

"No; I'm not content! But as I seem to be helpless, the fools who can
only judge by appearances and the others who are quick to think the worst
of me must believe what they like. Anyway, their opinion doesn't count
for much."

"How can people judge except by appearances?" Muriel argued. "Besides, do
you divide everybody you know into those two classes?"

He looked hard at her and, to her annoyance, she grew confused.

"No," he said slowly; "that would be very wrong--I was too quick. There
are a few with generous minds who haven't turned against me and I'm very
grateful."

"It might have been enough if you had said they had sense; but don't you
feel you owe them something? Is it fair to keep silence and do nothing
while they fight your battle?"

"Are there people who are doing so?"

"Yes," Muriel answered steadily. "You oughtn't to doubt it. You're
wronging your friends."

His expression betokened a strong effort at self-control.

"Well," he said, "it seems I have a duty to them, but how I'm to get
about it is more than I know."

"Have you thought of telling the police about your journey to British
Columbia and what you learned about Cyril Jernyngham?"

"I'm afraid they wouldn't believe me. Then there's the trouble that the
man I followed called himself Kermode."

"Never mind. Tell them; tell everybody you know."

"It would be useless," Prescott said doggedly.

"You're wrong," Muriel persisted. "When a thing is talked about enough,
people begin to believe it. Besides, it would give your supporters an
argument against the doubtful. I'm afraid they need one after the finding
of the clothes."

"The clothes? What clothes?"

Muriel's faith in Prescott had never been shaken, but his surprise caused
her keen satisfaction, and she told him all she knew about Jernyngham's
discovery.

"Still, I don't see what finding them there could signify," he said when
she had finished.

"Then you don't know that a day or two after Cyril Jernyngham
disappeared, a man dressed in clothes like those found, sold some land of
his at a place called Navarino?"

Prescott started.

"It's the first I've heard of it. There's some villainy here; the things
must have been hidden near my house with the object of strengthening
suspicion against me!"

"Of course! But you can't think that Jernyngham had a hand in it?"

"Oh, no! The man is trying to ruin me, but that kind of meanness isn't in
his line. Perhaps I'd better say that I never had clothes like those and
that I sold no land of Cyril's."

"Mr. Prescott," Muriel murmured shyly, "it isn't necessary to tell me
this; I never doubted it."

"Thank you," he answered shortly, but there was trouble in his voice and
the girl thought she knew what his reticence cost.

"Well," she said, "you will tell other people this and go to see Corporal
Curtis? You agreed that women have some power here, and, even if you're
not convinced, you will do what I ask because I wish it?"

"You have my promise."

He walked toward the window and stood looking out for a moment or two
before he turned to her again.

"Don't you think you had better start for home? The moon looks hazy. May
I drive out with you?"

Muriel had shrunk from the long journey in the dark, and she readily
agreed.

"I'll tell them to bring your team round," he said, moving toward the
door. "Get off as soon as you're ready, and I'll come along when I've
collected a few things I bought."

The girl let him go, appreciating his consideration, for she guessed his
thoughts. He was under suspicion and would give the tatlers in the town
nothing on which to base conjectures. It hurt her pride, however, to
admit that such precautions had better be taken.

Leaving the hotel, she found the trail smooth when she had crossed the
track, but after she passed the last of the fences the waste looked very
dreary. The moon was dimmed by thin, driving clouds, and the deep silence
grew depressing; the loneliness weighed on her, and she began to listen
eagerly for the beat of hoofs. For a time she heard nothing and she had
grown angry with Prescott for delaying when a measured drumming stole out
of the distance and her feeling of cheerfulness and security returned.
Its significance was not lost on her: she was learning to depend on the
man, to long for his society. Then, for no obvious reason, she urged the
team and kept ahead for a while. When he came up with an explanation
about a missing package, she laughed half-mockingly, and on the whole
felt glad that the narrowness of the trail, which compelled him to
follow, made conversation difficult.

An hour after she left the settlement the moon was hidden and fine snow
began to fall. It grew thicker, gradually covering the trail, until
Muriel had some difficulty in distinguishing it. The sleigh was running
heavily, and after a while Prescott told her to stop.

"I'll go ahead, and then you can follow my buggy," he said. "There won't
be much snow."

Muriel felt that there was quite enough to have made her very anxious had
she been alone, but when he passed and took his place in front she drove
on in confidence. She remembered that this was not a new feeling. He was
a man who could be trusted; one felt safe with him. Now and then she
could hardly see the buggy and she was glad of his cheery laugh and the
somewhat inconsequent remarks he flung back to her when the haze of
driving flakes grew thicker. So far as she could see, the trail now
differed in nothing from the rest of the wilderness, but he held on
without hesitation, and she felt no surprise when once or twice a belt of
trees she remembered loomed up. They made better progress when the snow
ceased, and at length Prescott stopped his horse and she saw a faint
blink of light some distance off.

"That's Leslie's," he said. "Shall I drive to the house with you?"

"No, that isn't needful, thank you."

"Then I'll wait until I see the door open. I'll look up Curtis in the
morning."

Muriel turned off toward the farm, where she found Colston and her sister
disturbed by her absence.

"Where have you been?" Mrs. Colston asked. "You have frightened us. Harry
would have driven out to look for you if he had known which way to go."

"I went to the settlement. I bought the things we spoke about, and I met
Mr. Prescott, who brought me home." Muriel spoke in a tone that
discouraged further questions. "Now I'm very cold, Harry, you might shake
the snow from those furs."

She left them soon afterward, pleading fatigue, and went to sleep,
feeling satisfied with what she had done and knowing that Prescott would
keep his promise.

Her confidence was justified, for on the following day he drove over to
the police post and found Curtis alone.

"I've come to tell you something and I'll ask you to let me get through
before you begin to talk," he said.

Curtis showed no surprise and indicated a chair.

"Sit there and go ahead."

He listened with close attention while Prescott described his journey and
recounted all that he had learned about Kermode.

"Why didn't you tell me this earlier?" Curtis asked.

"I couldn't imagine that you would believe it."

"Then what makes you think I'll believe it now?"

"To be honest, I don't care whether you do or not."

Curtis sat silent a few moments.

"What you have told me amounts to this," he then summed up: "you have
heard of a man who seems to look like Cyril Jernyngham."

"It's as much to the purpose that he acts like him. I've told you all I
learned about his doings and you can judge for yourself. You knew the
man."

"So do you," said Curtis pointedly.

Prescott smiled.

"Leave it at that. I want you to find out whether I'm correct or not. You
made some inquiries along the new line?"

"We didn't go far west," Curtis admitted. "There were difficulties, and
we couldn't see much reason for the search. It was quite clear to me that
Jernyngham was knocked out near the muskeg." He looked hard at Prescott.
"It isn't easy to change that opinion."

"It seems your duty to test it. Even if the thing costs some trouble,
can't you instruct your people in Alberta to find out whether a man
called Kermode worked in any of the construction camps, and if they're
satisfied that he answers Jernyngham's description, to have him followed
up in British Columbia?"

"There's a point you haven't got hold of," Curtis replied. "When you
struck a camp, asking after your partner, the boys were ready to talk to
you; but it's quite different when a trooper comes along. I wouldn't have
much use for anything they told him."

Prescott realized the truth of this. Traveling on foot in search of a
working comrade, he had been received by the railroad hands as one of
themselves; but he knew that men with checkered careers which would not
bear investigation found refuge among the toilers on the new lines, and
that even those who had nothing to fear would consider reticence becoming
when questioned by the police. The only excuse for loquacity would be the
sending of an inquisitive constable on a fruitless expedition.

"Then can't you try the bosses?" he asked.

"I guess they're not likely to have found out much about the man, and the
boys wouldn't tell them. However, I'll send up a report and see what can
be done."

"Thanks," said Prescott, and then asked bluntly: "What do you make of the
brown clothes?"

"So you heard they were found!" said Curtis with some dryness. "I haven't
done figuring on the matter yet."

"I don't suppose I'd help you by saying that they don't belong to me."

Curtis looked at him thoughtfully but made no answer for a while. Then:

"Did you ever see anybody wearing a suit like that?" he asked.

"Well," Prescott answered, "I believe I once did, but I can't think who
it was. I've been trying hard to remember all day and it may come back."

He got up and Curtis walked to the door with him.

"Frost's keeping pretty keen," he remarked.

Prescott drove away, and the corporal was smoking near the stove when
Stanton came in.

"You look as if you'd been studying the Jernyngham case," he said. "I'll
allow it's enough to get on your nerves."

"Prescott's been here," replied Curtis. "He's heard those blamed clothes
were found, and that's going to make us trouble. We've had Jernyngham
interfering and mussing up the tracks, and now Prescott's getting ready
to butt in. I expect he'll be off to Navarino very soon, and we can't
stop him unless we arrest him, which I'm not ready to do."

"Did he tell you he was going?"

"It wasn't needed; I've been figuring out the thing."

"Well," remarked Stanton with a thoughtful air, "he wouldn't let that
land agent see him if he'd been guilty."

Curtis reserved his opinion.

"You're getting smart," he said with a grin. "Still, you don't want to
hustle."

"Hustle?" Stanton rejoined scornfully. "Jernyngham was killed last summer
and we haven't corralled anybody yet!"

"That's so," Curtis assented tranquilly, "I've heard of the boys getting
the right man nearly two years afterward."



CHAPTER XXVI

PRESCOTT MAKES INQUIRIES


Supper was over and Laxton, the land agent, sat in the rotunda of the
leading hotel at Navarino. It was a handsome building, worthy of the new
town which had sprung into existence on the discovery that a wide belt of
somewhat arid country, hitherto passed over by settlers, was capable of
growing excellent wheat. As soon as this was proved, rude shacks and mean
frame houses had been torn down, and banks, stores, and hotels, of stone
or steel and cement rose in their places. Great irrigation ditches were
dug and a period of feverish prosperity began.

Though the frost was almost arctic outside, the rotunda was pleasantly
warm and was dimmed, in spite of its glaring lamps, with a haze of cigar
smoke. In front of the great plate-glass windows rows of men sat in
tilted chairs, their feet on a brass rail, basking in the dry heat of the
radiators. Drummers and land speculators were busy writing and consulting
maps at the tables farther back among the ornate columns, and the place
was filled with the hum of eager voices. The town was crowded with
homestead-selectors, and many, braving the rigors of winter, were camping
on their new possessions in frail tents and rude board shacks, ready to
begin work in the spring. Indeed, determined men had slept in the snow on
the sidewalks outside the land offices to secure first attention in the
morning when cheap locations were offered for settlement.

Laxton had had a tiring day, and he was leaning back lazily in his chair,
watching the crowd, when a man entered the turnstile-door, which was
fitted with glass valves to keep out the cold. He looked about the room
as if in search of somebody; and then after speaking to the clerk came
toward the land agent. Laxton glanced at him without much interest,
having already as much business on his hands as he could manage. The
stranger wore an old fur-coat and looked like a rancher.

"Mr. Laxton, I believe," he said, taking the next chair.

The land agent nodded and the other continued:

"My name's Prescott. I've come over from Sebastian to have a talk with
you."

"I suppose I'll have to spare you a few minutes," said Laxton with more
resignation than curiosity.

"In the first place, I want to ask if you have ever seen me before?"

Laxton looked at him with greater interest. The man's brown face was
eager, his eyes were keen, with a sparkle in them that hinted at
determination.

"Well," he said, "I can't recollect it."

"Would you be willing to swear to that?"

"Don't know that I'd go quite so far; I don't see why I should."

Prescott took out a sheet of paper with some writing on it.

"Do you recognize that hand?"

"No," said the agent decidedly. "It's a bold style that one ought to
notice, but I don't think I've seen it." Then he looked up sharply. "What
you getting after?"

"I'll explain in a minute. Let me say that I've examined the land sale
record here, and have found a deal registered that you were concerned in.
It was made in the name of Cyril Jernyngham."

Laxton started.

"Look here," he said, "I've had a lot of trouble over this thing since I
was fool enough to write to the police; in fact, I've had enough of the
Jernyngham case." He broke off for a moment as a light dawned on him and
then went on: "It's a sure thing I haven't met you, but, when I think,
there was a young lad something like you among others in blanket-coats in
a photograph a sergeant brought me. Montreal snowshoe or toboggan club, I
guess."

"I don't know how the police got it. But what did you tell the sergeant?"

"Said it was no use showing me a photograph like that, because I didn't
trade with kids."

"Then, as I'm the man the police suspect of selling that land of
Jernyngham's, it would be a great favor if you'll tell me candidly what
you know about the matter."

"Hang up your coat," said Laxton; "I'll do what I can. Anyway, you're not
the fellow I made the deal with."

He drew out a cigar-case when Prescott came back.

"Take a smoke and go ahead. I'm willing to talk."

"First of all, turn over the paper I gave you and look at the signature."

"Cyril Jernyngham!" exclaimed Laxton, astonished. "I see your point--the
hand ought to be the same as that on the sale registration form, and I
might have been expected to recognize it, but I can't remember all the
writing I see. However, we'll compare it with the other signature
to-morrow."

"When you do so, you'll find a difference."

"Ah!" said Laxton. "Then whose hand is this?"

"Cyril Jernyngham's. It was written in my presence, and what's more
important, in the presence of another man. Now will you tell me what the
fellow who made the deal with you was like?"

Laxton did so, and Prescott thought the description indicated Wandle,
though he was not the only man in the neighborhood of Sebastian to whom
it might apply.

"Did you notice how he was dressed?" he asked.

"He had on a suit of new brown clothes."

Prescott sat still, his brows knitted, his right hand clenched. The
reason why the clothes had been hidden near his house was obvious, but
there was something else: a blurred memory that was growing into shape.
Ever since he had heard about them from Muriel, he had been trying to
think where he had seen the clothes, and at last he seemed to hold a
clue. In another few moments it led him to the truth; everything was
clear. He had once met Wandle driving toward the settlement wearing such
a suit, and by good fortune he had shortly afterward been overtaken by a
farmer who must have seen the man. In his excitement he struck the table.

"Now I know!" he cried. "The man who forged Jernyngham's name hid his
clothes near my house to fix the thing on me. I owe you a good deal for
your help in a puzzling matter."

The agent was sympathetic, and after Prescott had given him an outline of
his connection with the case, they sat talking over its details. Laxton
had a keen intelligence and his comments on several points were valuable.
When Prescott went to sleep it was with a weight off his mind; but his
mood changed the next day and he traveled back to Sebastian in a very
grim humor.

Open and just as he was in all his dealings, Wandle's treachery
infuriated him. There would, he felt, have been more extenuation for the
trick had the man killed Jernyngham, but that he should conspire to throw
the blackest suspicion on a neighbor in order to enjoy the proceeds of a
petty theft was abominable. He must be made to suffer for it. However,
Prescott did not mean to trouble the police. He had had enough of their
cautious methods. He determined to secure a proof of Wandle's guilt,
unassisted, without further loss of time, and to do this he must obtain a
specimen of the man's writing to compare with that on the land sale
documents. There was, he thought, a way of getting it.

Reaching Sebastian in the evening, he was going to the livery-stable to
hire a team when he met an acquaintance who offered to drive him home. As
the man would pass within a mile or two of Wandle's homestead and there
was a farm in the neighborhood where he might borrow a horse, Prescott
agreed. His companion found him preoccupied during the journey. He put
him down at a fork of the trail, and Prescott, walking on quickly through
the darkness, saw Wandle's team standing harnessed when he reached the
house. This was a sign that their owner had recently come home, and
Prescott, opening the door without knocking, abruptly entered the
kitchen. The lamp was lighted and Wandle, standing near it with his
fur-coat still on, looked startled. Prescott was sensible of a burning
desire to grapple with him and extort a confession by force, but there
was a risk of the crude method defeating its object, and with strong
self-denial he determined to set to work prudently.

"I see you have just come in, and I'm anxious to get home, so I won't
keep you more than a few minutes," he said.

"How did you come?" Wandle asked. "I didn't hear a team."

"Harper drove me out. I walked up the cross trail; but that doesn't
matter. The last time we had a talk we fell out over the straightening up
of Jernyngham's affairs."

"That's so; you still owe me a hundred dollars."

"I don't admit it," said Prescott, who had laid his plans on the
expectation of this claim being made. "Anyhow, the dispute has been
dragging on and it's time we put an end to it. It was the small items you
wanted to charge Jernyngham with that I objected to, and I may have cut
some of them down too hard. Suppose you write me out a list."

"I can tell you them right away."

"Put them down on paper; then we can figure them out more easily."

"Don't know if I've any ink," said Wandle. "Haven't you a notebook in
your wallet? You used to carry one."

Prescott made a mistake in putting his hand into his pocket, which showed
that he had the book, but he remembered that it would not suit his
purpose to produce it.

"I'm not going to make out your bill," he said. "That's your business.
Give me a proper list of the disputed expenses and we'll see what can be
done."

He was a poor diplomatist and erred in showing too keen a desire to
secure a specimen of the other's handwriting, which is a delicate thing
to press an unskilful forger for. Wandle was on his guard, though he
carefully hid all sign of uneasiness.

"Well," he said, "I'll send you a list over in a day or two; after all,
if I think them over, I may be able to knock something off one or two of
the items. But now you're here, I want to say that you were pretty mean
about that cultivator. They're not sold at the price you allowed me."

This was intended to lead Prescott away from the main point and it
succeeded, because, being at a loss for an excuse for demanding the list
immediately, he was willing to speak of something else while he thought
of one.

"You're wrong," he said curtly. "You can get them at any big dealer's. I
looked in at a western store where they stock those machines, yesterday,
and the fellow gave me his schedule."

He had taken off his mittens, but his hands were stiff with cold, and
when he felt in his pocket he dropped several of the papers he brought
out. The back of a catalogue fell uppermost, and it bore the words,
"Hasty's high-grade implements, Navarino." Near this lay an envelope
printed with the name of a Navarino hotel.

There was nothing to show that Wandle had noticed them--he stood some
distance off on the opposite side of the table--but Prescott was too
eager in gathering them up. Opening the catalogue, he read out a
description of the cultivator and the price.

"Taking the cash discount, it comes to a dollar less than what I was
ready to pay you," he said. "Now make out the list and we'll try to get
the thing fixed up before I go."

Wandle sat down for a few moments, for he had received a shock. His
suspicions had already been aroused, and Prescott's motive in going to
Navarino was obvious; besides, he thought he had read Laxton's name on
the envelope. He could expect no mercy--Prescott's face was ominously
grim--and there was no doubt that, having seen Laxton, he knew who had
hidden the brown clothes. The game was up, but, shaken by fear and rage
as he was, he rose calmly from his seat.

"Well, since you insist on it, I guess I'll have to write the thing; but
I can't leave my team standing in the frost. Sit down and take a smoke
while I put them in."

Prescott could not object to this. He lighted his pipe when Wandle left
him. He heard the door shut and the horses being led away, for the stable
stood at some little distance from the house, and after that no further
sound reached him. Mastering his impatience, he began to consider what he
would best do when Wandle had given him the list. He supposed he ought to
hand it over to Curtis, but he was more inclined to go back to Navarino
and compare the writing with the signature on the documents relating to
the sale. Then, having proof of the forgery, he would communicate with
the police. He was sensible of a curious thrill at the thought that the
suspicion which had tainted him would shortly be dispelled.

After a while it occurred to him that Wandle should have returned, but he
reflected that the man might be detained by some small task. After
waiting some minutes longer, he walked to the door, but finding that he
could not see the entrance to the stable, he stood still, irresolute. He
thought he had been firm enough, and to betray any further eagerness
would be injudicious. The matter must be handled delicately, lest Wandle
take alarm.

When he had smoked out his pipe, Prescott could no longer restrain his
impatience. He hurried toward the stable. The moonlight fell on the front
of the building and the door was open; but Prescott stopped with a start,
for all was dark inside and there was no sign of the vehicle in which the
rancher had driven home. A worse surprise awaited him, for when he ran
inside and struck a match it was clear that Wandle and his team had gone.

Prescott dropped the match and stood still a few moments, in savage fury.
There was no doubt that he had been cleverly tricked; Wandle, guessing
his object, had quietly driven away as soon as he had led the team clear
of the house. Moreover, Prescott had good cause for believing that he
would not come back. With an effort, he pulled himself together. To give
rein to his anger and disappointment would serve no purpose; but he had
no horse with which to begin the pursuit. He remembered having told
Wandle so when he first entered the house. Striking another match, he
lighted a lantern he found and eagerly looked about. A plow team occupied
two of the stalls, and though they were heavy Clydesdales with no speed
in them, they would be capable of traveling faster than a man on foot. As
he could not find a saddle, he ran back to the house and returned with a
blanket. A bit and bridle hung on a nail, he found a girth, but his hands
were cold and he spent some time adjusting straps and fastening on the
blanket before he led one of the horses out and mounted.

The moonlight was clear enough to show him that there were no fresh
wheelmarks in the snow. Wandle had kept to the trail, and Prescott
surmised that he would travel south toward the American boundary.
Although he feared he would lose ground steadily, he meant to follow,
since there was a chance of the fugitive's being delayed by some
accident, which would enable him to come up. It was extremely cold,
Prescott was not dressed for riding, and the folded blanket made a very
bad saddle. At times pale moonlight shone down, but more often it died
away, obscured by thin cloud. The trail, however, was plain and the big
Clydesdale was covering the ground. Prescott's hands and feet grew
numbed, and there was a risk in this, but he trotted steadily on.

After a while he heard two horsemen following him. He did not pull up;
time was precious, and if the others wished to overtake him, he had no
doubt that they could do so. During the next few minutes it became
evident that they were gaining, and he heard a cry which he answered
without stopping. Then, as the moon came through, another shout reached
him, sharp and commanding:

"Stop, before we drop you!"

This was not to be disregarded. Pulling up, he turned his horse. Two
mounted men rode furiously down on him, loose snow flying about their
horses, and one poised a carbine across his saddle. Struggling to check
his horse, he swept past, shouting to his comrade:

"Hold on! It's Prescott!"

They were a little distance ahead when they stopped and trotted back, and
Prescott waited until Curtis pulled up at his side.

"Where were you going?" cried the corporal.

"After Wandle."

"I might have guessed!" said Curtis savagely, and turned to Stanton.
"This explains the thing."

"How far is he ahead of you?" Stanton asked.

"He got off half an hour before I did, as near as I can guess."

They sat silent for a moment or two, breathless and crestfallen, their
horses distressed.

"Let's get into the lee of the bluff yonder; this wind's keen," Curtis
said.

"You're losing time," Prescott objected.

"We've lost it," Curtis told him grimly. "My mount has been out since
noon, and it's near midnight now. Stanton's isn't much fresher."

Prescott rode with them to the bluff, where they got down.

"That's a relief; it's quite a while since I could feel the bridle," said
Curtis, turning to Prescott. "How did you scare Wandle off? Be as quick
as you can!"

Prescott briefly related what led to his call at the farm and the
corporal's face was filled with scornful anger.

"This is what comes of you blamed amateurs butting in!" he remarked.
"Jernyngham was bad enough, but he can't come near you at mussing up our
plans. Guess you don't know that we've been watching Wandle for some
weeks, ready to corral him, and you start him off like this, without
warning."

"I'd reason to believe you were watching me," Prescott dryly rejoined.

"Oh, well," said Curtis, "that's another matter. Anyhow, I had trailed
Wandle to Kelly's place since dark, and I'd trotted round to see if he'd
got back to his homestead when I found that he had gone. Stanton and I
were prospecting out this way when we struck your trail."

"What are you going to do about it?"

"We'll make the next farm and try to borrow horses. Then I'll ride to the
railroad and get the wires to work. Stanton will keep the trail by Long
Lake."

"Then I'll push right on by the Traverse. There's a ranch I should make
by daylight where I might get a mount. I'm going to see the thing
through."

Curtis considered this.

"Well," he said, "I guess you can't do much harm, and Wandle may not have
gone by the lake after all. You can pick up Stanton if you find out
anything, and I'll try to join you from one of the stations along the
line."

They mounted, and on reaching the trail forks where they must separate,
Prescott turned to Curtis.

"Aren't you afraid of letting me out of your sight?" he asked.

"No, sir," Curtis answered with a smile. "You're not quite so important
to us now; and I'm not running much risk, anyway, considering the horse
you've got."



CHAPTER XXVII

STARTLING NEWS


It was noon on the day after Wandle's flight, and Jernyngham was sitting
with his friends in a room of the Leslie homestead when Muriel, looking
out of the window, saw Prescott's hired man ride up at a gallop. His
haste and his anxious expression when he dismounted alarmed her, but her
companions had not noticed him, and she waited, listening to the murmur
of voices that presently reached her from an adjoining room. They ceased
in a few minutes, she saw the man ride away as fast as he had come, and
soon afterward Leslie opened the door. He was a talkative person and
looked as if he had something of importance to relate.

"Svendsen has been over to ask if I saw Prescott when I was in at the
settlement yesterday," he said. "When I told him that I hadn't, he seemed
mighty disturbed."

Muriel's heart throbbed painfully, but she waited for one of the others
to speak, and Jernyngham, laying down his paper, glanced up sharply.

"Why?" he asked.

This was all the encouragement Leslie needed.

"I'll tell you, so far as I've got the hang of the thing; I thought you'd
like to know. It seems Prescott has been away somewhere for a few days
and should have got home last night. He came in on the train in the
evening, and Harper drove him out and dropped him at Wandle's trail;
Prescott said he wanted to see the man. Well, he didn't get home, and
Svendsen, who'd been to Harper's this morning, found Wandle gone and
three of his horses missing. Then he found out from Watson, who stayed at
the hotel last night, that Curtis rode in on a played-out horse before it
was light, and kept the night operator busy for a while with the wires.
Seems to me the thing has a curious look."

For a moment or two nobody spoke. Muriel felt dismayed by the news, and
she glanced at the others, trying to read their thoughts. Colston looked
troubled, Gertrude's face was hard and stamped with a kind of cruel
satisfaction, Jernyngham was very grim.

"Is that all you know about the matter?" Jernyngham asked.

"I guess so," Leslie answered. "Still, Svendsen did allow he thought he'd
seen Stanton hanging about the homestead yesterday evening."

"Thank you," said Jernyngham with cold politeness. "I'll want the team
after dinner."

Seeing no excuse for remaining, the rancher went out, and Jernyngham
turned to the others. His brows were knitted and his eyes gleamed
ominously.

"There's no mystery about the matter; the man has gone for good," he
said. "In spite of the assurances they gave me, these fools of police
have let him slip through their fingers. That he saw Wandle before he
bolted proves collusion between them. It was a thing I half suspected,
but Curtis, of course, did not agree with me."

Muriel was recovering from the shock. Though things looked very bad, she
could not believe that Prescott had run away. He had promised to call on
Curtis and her confidence in him was unshaken.

"He went away by train a day or two ago, and if he had had anything to
fear, he would have made his escape then," she said.

Mrs. Colston cast a warning glance at her, as if begging her to say
nothing more, but Jernyngham curtly answered her remark.

"The man probably wanted to sell his property where it would excite less
notice than at Sebastian. Then I suppose he found it needful to see his
confederate."

"They could have gone off together in the first instance," Colston
objected.

Jernyngham made an impatient gesture.

"I was merely suggesting an explanation; the point is not important. The
fellow has bolted; but I've reason for believing he won't get across the
boundary!"

He broke off, tearing the newspaper as he opened it, and there was an
awkward silence until Mrs. Leslie brought in dinner. Jernyngham ate very
little, and after spending a few minutes in his room, he drove off in the
sleigh. Somewhat later, Colston met Gertrude in a passage and stopped
her. He thought she looked anxious.

"I'm sorry I couldn't calm your father, but I was afraid that anything I
might say would only make him more excited," he told her. "I meant to go
with him, but he wouldn't permit it."

"No," she said, "there was nothing that you could do; but I'm badly
disturbed." She paused irresolutely, and then resumed: "He has taken a
magazine pistol, though I believe it's the first time he has carried it."

Colston looked grave. He determined, if possible, to abstract the pistol
and hide it on Jernyngham's return.

"I'm very sorry. It must be trying for you. Indeed, I wonder anxiously
where all this is leading us."

"The horrible mystery will be cleared up on Prescott's arrest," Gertrude
said in a harsh voice. "I think that can't be long deferred."

She left him troubled by her expression, and he and the others spent a
dreary afternoon and evening. It was late when Jernyngham returned,
looking worn but very stern.

"From what I've learned, word has been sent to every police trooper
between here and the frontier," he said, and broke into a grim smile.
"Prescott's chance of escape is a very poor one."

He made a scanty meal, without seeming to notice what he ate, and
afterward sat silent. The others seldom spoke and when a word was
exchanged there was strain in their voices. The snapping of the poplar
billets in the stove seemed to emphasize the quiet and jarred on their
nerves, while Muriel, tormented by fears on Prescott's account, found the
suspense and constraint almost intolerable. She was thankful when bedtime
came, though she could not sleep. Her troubled thoughts were with her
lover, and she wondered what perils he was exposed to on the snowy wilds.

As it happened, Prescott was riding steadily through the stinging frost.
He had been unable to obtain a fresh horse, but he had borrowed a saddle,
and the Clydesdale, though far from fast, possessed good staying powers.
For all that, he had been forced to rest part of the day at an outlying
farm, and while there a man brought him word from Stanton, whose line of
travel ran roughly parallel with his, three or four leagues to the west.
The trooper's horse had gone badly lame, and Prescott was instructed to
push on while Stanton sought another mount.

It was a very bitter night, but the young rancher was used to cold, and,
riding alone in the moonlight, he made the best pace he could across the
white desolation. There was no sign of life on it. Nothing moved in the
reeds beside the frozen ponds and the shadowy bluffs he passed; no sound
but the thud of heavy hoofs broke the overwhelming silence. By and by he
left the trees behind, and pressed on into a vast glittering plain which
ran back to the horizon, unbroken by a bush, and inexpressibly lonely.

In the early morning he reached a homestead where he rested until the
afternoon. He chafed at the delay, but as the Clydesdale was badly jaded,
it could not be avoided, and Wandle would have to stop now and then,
unless he could hire fresh horses, which might be difficult. Starting
again, he came to a small wooden settlement in the evening and rode first
to the livery-stable. The telephone wires, which were being stretched
across the prairie, had not reached the place, and he surmised that the
police had been unable to communicate with it. The liveryman was busy in
one of the stalls, but he came out and answered Prescott's question.

"Yes," he said, "a fellow like the one you speak of came in here about an
hour ago. His team looked pretty used up and he wanted to hire another,
but I couldn't deal. Keep my horses hauling cordwood through the winter,
and the only team I have in the stable is ordered by a drummer for
to-morrow."

"Can't you find me a mount? I'll pay you what you like."

"No, sir," said the other. "When I engage to drive a man round, I've got
to make good. If I didn't, it would soon ruin my trade."

Seeing he was not to be moved, Prescott asked:

"How do you strike the south trail?"

"Go straight through the town. It forks in about three miles, and you can
take either branch. They're both pretty bad, but the west one's the
shorter and the worse."

"What's between the forks?"

"A big patch of broken country--sandhills and bluffs. About eight miles
on, the other trail runs in again."

"Are there any homesteads on the way?"

"Nothing near the trail. There's a shack where two fellows cutting
cordwood camp."

Prescott considered when he had thanked the man. He was tired and his
horse was far from fresh, but he understood that Wandle's team was in a
worse condition. There was a possibility of his overtaking him, if he
pushed on at once. Leaving the stable, he meant to walk a short distance
to ease his aching limbs, but he saw a mounted man trotting up the street
and called out as he recognized Stanton.

"I thought I might get news of you here," said the trooper, pulling up.
"Have you found out anything?"

Prescott told him what he had heard, and Stanton nodded.

"Then we had better get on. The horse I've got is pretty fresh."

In another minute or two they had left the lights of the settlement
behind and Prescott prepared for a third night on the trail. His eyes
were heavy, long exposure to extreme cold had had its effect on him, and
the warmth seemed to be dying out of his exhausted body. After a while
they came to a straggling clump of birches with blurred masses of taller
trees behind, where the trail broke in two. Stanton dismounted and struck
a few matches, examining the snow carefully.

"Nothing to show which way Wandle's gone," he reported. "Somebody's been
along with a bob-sled not long ago and rubbed out his tracks. Anyhow,
I'll take the shorter fork."

They separated; the trooper riding on in the moonlight and Prescott
entering the gloom of the trees. He soon found the trial remarkably
uneven. So far as he could make out, it skirted a number of low, thickly
timbered ridges, swinging sharply up and down. In places it slanted
awkwardly toward one edge; in others it was covered with stiff, dwarf
scrub. One or two of the descents to frozen creeks were alarmingly steep
and the Clydesdale stumbled now and then, but it kept its feet and
Prescott felt that, everything considered, he was making a satisfactory
pace. Stanton, he supposed, was two or three miles to the west of him,
following the opposite edge of the high ground, but there was nothing to
indicate which of them was the nearer to Wandle.

He rode on, wishing the light were better, for the faint gleam of the
moon among the trees confused his sight and made it difficult to
distinguish the trail, while to leave it might lead to his plunging down
some precipitous gully. At length he saw a yellow glow ahead, and soon
afterward came upon a shack in an opening. Small logs were strewn about
it and among them stood tall piles of cordwood. The door opened as he
rode up and a man's dark figure appeared in the entrance.

"Have you seen a rig going south?" Prescott asked.

"I heard one, about seven or eight minutes ago. The fellow didn't seem to
be driving quick."

"Thanks," responded Prescott, and rode off with a feeling of
satisfaction.

He had gained on Wandle, who had probably been delayed by some mischance
on the trail. If the Clydesdale could be urged to a faster pace, he might
overtake him, but this must be done before the fugitive could hire a
fresh team. Next, he began to wonder what progress Stanton had made, for
the relative positions of Wandle and the constable were now important. If
Stanton were far enough ahead, he would reach the spot where the trails
united before the absconder, in which case they would have him between
them and it would be better for Prescott to save his horse's strength,
because speed might be required. On the contrary, if Stanton were not yet
abreast of him, he ought to push on as fast as possible. Wandle, he was
glad to remember, could not know how closely he was being followed.

Turning the matter over in his mind, he rode at a moderate pace while the
rough track wound deeper into the bluff. The partial obscurity was now
extremely puzzling. Here and there a slender trunk glimmered in the faint
moonlight that streamed down between the branches, and patches of
brightness lay across the path, but this intensified the darkness of the
background. It was hard to tell which of the dim avenues that kept
opening up was the trail; the state of the short scrub could no longer be
used as a guide, for the cordwood cutters had not penetrated so far with
their sled.

Prescott knew that he must go forward, however; and he was gazing
anxiously ahead with eyes that ached from long exposure to the reflection
from the snow when the Clydesdale stumbled violently. He had scarcely
time to clear his feet of the stirrups before the beast went down and he
was flung into a clump of brush with a force that nearly drove the breath
out of him. For a few moments he lay still, dimly conscious that the
horse was struggling in the snow; and then, rousing himself with an
effort, he got up unsteadily. He felt badly shaken, but he saw the horse
scramble to its feet without assistance and stand trembling, looking
about for him.

Neither he nor the animal seemed to be seriously injured, but he felt
incapable of mounting and waited a while, wondering what he should do. He
was tired out and was sensible of a depressing lassitude, the result of
nervous strain. Then, as the bitter cold nipped him, a reaction set in.
Wandle, he remembered, had with detestable cunning plotted to ruin him;
it might be difficult to clear himself unless the man were arrested. For
the sake of the girl who had maintained his innocence with steadfast
faith, the suspicion under which he labored must be dispelled. Prescott
was seized by a fit of fury against his betrayer. Nerved by it, he got
into the saddle and rode on, urging the Clydesdale savagely through the
wood.

Half an hour later he heard a measured drumming sound and Stanton's voice
answered his hail. Then a horseman rode out of a gap in the trees and
pulled up near him.

"I suppose you have seen nothing of Wandle?" Prescott asked.

"Not a sign," said Stanton shortly. "Have you?"

Prescott raised his hand and sat listening while he struggled with his
rage and disappointment. The night was still; he thought he would hear
any sound there might be a long distance off, but nothing broke the
silence.

"I learned from a chopper that I wasn't far behind him, and I half
expected you would have headed him off. I can't think he has passed this
spot."

"We'll try to fix that."

Stanton dismounted and struck several matches. The flame burned steadily,
but it showed none of the marks for which he searched the beaten snow
with practised eyes.

"No," he said, "I'd stake a month's pay that the fellow's not ahead."

They looked at each other, frankly puzzled; and then Prescott broke out
angrily:

"Where can the blasted rustler be?"

"Couldn't have left the bluffs on my side without my seeing him, and if
he'd doubled back on his tracks, you'd have met him," Curtis remarked.

"He's not likely to be hiding in the woods. He'd freeze without a proper
outfit, which he can't have got."

They grappled with the problem in silence for a minute or two.

"We'll take the back trail," Stanton decided. "The fellow must have
broken out for open country on your side. I guess he knows where there's
a homestead where he might find a team."

Prescott agreed, and they rode off wearily the way he had come, shivering
with the cold that had seized them while they waited. The expectant
excitement which had animated them for the past hour had gone and was
followed by a reaction. Their bodies were half frozen, their minds worked
heavily, but both were conscious of a grim resolve. It was the trooper's
duty to bear crushing fatigue and stinging frost, one that was sternly
demanded of him; and the rancher had a stronger motive. He must clear
himself for Muriel's sake, and he was filled with rage against the man
who had tried to betray him. He would go on, if necessary, until his
hands and feet froze or the big Clydesdale fell.



CHAPTER XXVIII

THE END OF THE PURSUIT


When they had ridden some distance through the wood, Stanton checked his
horse.

"Hold on!" he cried. "Here's a bit of an opening in the brush!"

He moved away a few yards, and then called out:

"Looks mighty like a trail. I guess you didn't notice it when you came
along."

Prescott admitted that he had not done so, which was not surprising.
There was little to distinguish the gap between the nut bushes from
others that opened up all round; but Stanton seemed satisfied that he was
right.

"Somebody has driven out this way not long ago," he explained.

"It doesn't follow that the man was Wandle."

"Why, no. Still, I guess it's likely; and if there's a trail, it leads to
a homestead. Anyway, we'll track it up."

When they reached the open prairie, the moonlight showed faint wheelmarks
running on before them to the east. The country was open and empty; a
wide plain, with one slight rise some miles away that cut with a white
gleam against the deep blue of the sky. They headed toward it wearily,
following the track, and drew bridle when they gained the summit. A
half-moon floated rather low in the western sky, glittering keen with
frost, and they could see that the prairie ahead of them was more rolling
and broken. Dusky smears of bluffs checkered its white surface here and
there, and a low irregular dark line ran across it. Prescott supposed
this to be a small timber growing along the edge of a ravine. Beyond it,
in the distance, a faint glimmer of yellow light caught and held his eye.
It was the one touch of warm color in the chill and lifeless waste of
white and blue.

"A homestead," said Stanton. "We'll ride as far as the ravine together;
and then I guess I'll make for the farm alone. If Wandle's been there
looking for horses, he'll strike south and take the trail we left,
farther on. You'll head down that way and watch out to cut him off if he
lights out before I come up."

Prescott understood the maneuver. By driving east the fugitive had lost
ground, and if he could push on fast enough, Prescott might reach a
position from which he could either run him down or turn him back into
the hands of the trooper.

When they came to the ravine and descended the deep shadowy hollow, they
parted company, Prescott following the opposite brink, because Wandle
would have to cross it lower down to regain the south trail. Once or
twice he left it for a while when the gorge twisted in a big loop away
from him, but he could see nothing of his companion. They had commanded a
wide sweep of plain when they crossed the rise, but now that he was on
low ground, the scattered bluffs obstructed his view. Indeed, he fancied
from their position that they would prevent Stanton's seeing the farm.
Once he stopped and listened with strained attention, but he could hear
only the faint sighing of a light wind among the trees he skirted and the
snapping of a twig, made by what means he could not tell, for there was
no sign of life in all the frozen wilds. It was very dreary, and Prescott
had little expectation of overtaking Wandle after the time they had lost,
but he doggedly rode on.

At length an indistinct sound, too regular for the wind to account for,
reached him, and grew louder when he pulled up his horse. It was a dull,
measured throbbing, and he knew it to be the beat of hoofs. It was
drawing nearer, but it might be made by Stanton riding to join him, and
he headed so as to clear one of the bluffs which prevented his seeing far
across the plain. On passing the end of the timber he saw another taller
patch half a mile off, which hid most of the prairie between him and the
farm, and knowing that time might be valuable he clung to the ravine,
urging the jaded Clydesdale to its fastest pace, which was very moderate.
He had gone about a mile, opening up the flat waste beyond the second
bluff, when the black shape of a team and rig appeared on it. The team
was being driven furiously, and in another few moments Prescott was not
surprised to see a horseman sweep out from the gloom of the trees behind
them. It was, however, soon obvious that the trooper was not gaining
ground; Wandle had got fresh horses, his rig was light, while Stanton's
mount had already carried him a long way. Prescott's Clydesdale had been
harder taxed, but he knew he could not spare the beast. Wandle must have
seen him, but he was holding straight on, and this could only be because
he was following a trail which led to the easiest crossing of the ravine.
The man would shrink from the risk of getting entangled among thick
timber with his team.

Prescott would have found speed difficult, even had he been mounted on a
fresh horse. The snow was thin, but it was loose and dusty beneath the
crust, through which the hoofs broke, while Wandle was making excellent
progress along a beaten trail. Still, Prescott was nearer to the point
the man was making for, and if he could reach it first, Wandle could not
escape. Riding with savage determination, he sped on, the snow flying up
behind him, the thrill of the pursuit firing his blood and filling him
with fierce excitement. Wandle's fresh team was going at a gallop, the
hoofs beating out a sharp drumming that mingled with the furious rattle
of wheels, and through these sounds broke a rapid, pounding thud which
told that Stanton was following hard behind. The trooper was, however,
less close than he had been; too far, Prescott thought, to use his
carbine; and as he mercilessly drove his beast he feared that he could
scarcely reach the trail in time. He was closing with the rig and could
see Wandle savagely lash his team; the trouble was that instead of riding
to cut off the fugitive, in another few minutes he would be behind him,
which was a very different thing.

While he plied the quirt he saw the rig vanish among the trees close
ahead. They stretched out some distance into the prairie, and he might
not be too late yet, if he were willing to take a serious risk. He did
not think the trail ran straight down into the ravine--the hollow was too
deep for that--it would descend the slope obliquely and might trend
toward him. If so, he should still be able to intercept the rig by
cutting off the corner and riding straight down the steep bank through
the timber. The odds were in favor of his killing the horse and breaking
his own neck, but this did not count, and the next moment there was a
crash as the Clydesdale rushed through a brake. A branch struck
Prescott's leg a heavy blow, but he was too numbed to feel much pain, and
as he swung round a bush that threatened to tear him from the saddle he
could look down between the trees. Then he was filled with exultation,
for the trail had turned his way. Below him, but farther from the bottom
of the dipping track than he was, Wandle's horses were plunging downhill
at a furious gallop, the rig jolting behind them, the driver leaning
forward and using the whip. There was no sign of Stanton except the
pounding of hoofs that rose among the trees.

Then the slope grew dangerously sharp and Prescott set his teeth. The
Clydesdale flinched from the descent, but it was too jaded to struggle
hard, and the next moment it stumbled and slid over the edge. They went
down, slipping over ground as hard as granite under its thin coat of
snow, smashing through nut bushes, tearing off low branches. Prescott saw
Wandle turn his head and look up at him. Then the fugitive sent up a
hoarse cry of rage and warning, too late. If he could stop his team,
which was very doubtful, he might escape the threatened collision; but
this would involve his capture by Stanton, and he lashed his horses and
went on, while Prescott and the great plow horse came madly rushing down
at him. He looked at them again, with a breathless yell; then he let the
reins fall and seized a seat rail.

The Clydesdale struck the light off-side horse, hurling it upon its
fellow, breaking the pole. Both lost their footing and were driven round.
Prescott, flung upon the backs of the horses, grasped the front of the
rig, which ran on a yard or two and overturned with a crash. The
Clydesdale went down among the wreckage, another horse was on its side,
kicking savagely; and Stanton, hurrying up, saw Prescott crawl slowly
clear of it. Seizing him, he lifted him to his feet, and to his great
surprise the man leaned against a tree with a half-dazed laugh.

"Well," he gasped, "I'm not in pieces, anyway!"

"Then you ought to be!" said Stanton, too startled to congratulate him on
his escape. "But where's Wandle?"

Prescott seemed unable to answer and the trooper, looking round, saw
Wandle lying in the snow; but before he could reach him the man began to
raise himself on his elbow. This was disconcerting, for Stanton had
thought him dead.

"Well," the trooper said stupidly, "what's the matter with you?"

"I don't know," Wandle replied weakly. "Don't feel like talking; let me
alone."

Stanton had no fear of his escaping, so he went back to the horses. One
of them stood trembling, attached to the rig by the deranged harness; the
other still lay kicking, while the big Clydesdale rolled to and fro, with
its leg through a wrenched-off wheel. It was astonishing that none of
them was killed. Prescott apparently needed no assistance, and Stanton
felt that he required some occupation to calm himself. Accordingly, he
freed the Clydesdale of the broken wheel, narrowly escaping a kick which
would have broken his ribs. The horse was a valuable one and must not be
left in danger, and after a few minutes of severe exertion Stanton got it
on its feet. Then he turned to the fallen driving horse and began, at
some risk, to cut away its harness. Prescott came to help him, and
together they raised the beast. Then Stanton sat down heavily on the
wreckage.

"Well," he remarked, "that was the blamedest fool trick, your riding down
the grade; they wouldn't expect that kind of work from us in the service!
What I can't account for is that you look none the worse."

Prescott, standing shakily in the moonlight, smiled. "It is surprising;
but hadn't you better look after Wandle? He seems to be getting up."

Wandle was cautiously getting on his feet, and the trooper watched him
until he moved a pace or two.

"You don't look very broke up," he said. "Do you feel as if you could
walk?"

"I believe I could ride," Wandle answered sullenly.

"Well, I guess you won't. You have given us trouble enough already, and
you'll be warmer on your feet." Then he drew out a paper. "This is my
warrant. It's my duty to arrest you----"

Wandle listened coolly to the formula, in which he was charged with
fraudulently selling Jernyngham's land and forging his name. Indeed,
Prescott fancied that he was relieved to find that nothing more serious
had been brought against him.

"Well," he said, "you'll hear my defense when it's ready. What's to be
done now?"

"Head back to the homestead where you got the team. Think you can lead
one of them? It's either that or I'll put the handcuffs on you--make your
choice." Stanton turned to Prescott. "It will be warmer walking, and I've
ridden about enough."

The suggestion was agreed to, and after looping up the cut harness
awkwardly with numbed fingers, they set off; Wandle going first, holding
one horse's head, Prescott following with two, and the trooper bringing
up the rear. When they reached the farm, to the astonishment of its
occupants, they were given quarters in the kitchen, where a big stove was
burning. Soon afterward, Prescott and Wandle lay down on the wooden
floor, wrapped in blankets supplied them by the farmer, and Prescott sank
into heavy sleep. Stanton, sitting upright in an uncomfortable chair,
kept watch with his carbine laid handy on the table. He spent the night
in a tense struggle to keep awake, and when Prescott got up at dawn the
trooper's face was haggard and his eyes half closed, but he was still on
guard.

After breakfast, they borrowed a saddle for Wandle and set out on the
return journey, meeting Curtis, who had ridden from the railroad, at the
first settlement they reached. Prescott left the others there, and rode
toward the station the corporal had just left, taking some telegrams
Curtis asked him to despatch. He spent an afternoon and a night in the
little wooden town, and went on again the next day by a local train.

While Prescott was on the way, Jernyngham drove to Sebastian with
Gertrude. The girl had insisted on accompanying him. Soon after they left
the homestead Colston, who was trying to read a paper from which his
interest wandered, looked up at his wife.

"It's fine weather and not quite so cold," he said. "Suppose we go to the
settlement and get supper there? I've no doubt there's something you or
Muriel would like to buy."

"As it happens, there is," Mrs. Colston replied. "But I don't think
that's all you have in your mind."

"The fact is, I'm disturbed about Jernyngham," Colston admitted. "He has
been in an extremely restless mood since Prescott disappeared."

"I have noticed that. But do you know why he has gone to Sebastian
to-day?"

"He told me. One of the police authorities, whom he has seen already, is
staying at the hotel to-night. Jernyngham means to get hold of him and
insist upon an explanation of what they are doing."

Muriel leaned forward in her chair. She looked anxious, for no news of
anything that had happened since Wandle's flight had reached the
neighborhood. It was only known that the police were in pursuit of him;
and local opinion was divided as to whether Prescott was also a fugitive
or, knowing more about the matter than anybody else, had offered Curtis
his assistance.

"I think you ought to go," she said. "And you may hear something."

"Well," Colston replied, "I'll confess that I'm curious, though I'm going
mainly on Jernyngham's account." He turned to his wife. "Don't you think
it's advisable?"

"I do, and it would be better if we all went. Then you will have an
excuse for following Jernyngham and can watch him without making the
thing too marked. It's a pity you didn't succeed in getting the pistol
away from him."

"I've done what I could. I had another try this morning, but he caught me
looking for it and I believe he guessed what I was after, because he was
unusually short with me. It's my opinion that he has taken to wearing the
thing; so far as I can discover, it's nowhere in the house. One hesitates
about ransacking his room."

"It is not in the house, and he is not to be trusted with it," Muriel
said quietly.

Colston cast a surprised glance at her.

"Oh! You seem to know. I've no doubt you are cleverer with your fingers
than I am and wouldn't be so afraid of leaving your tracks."

"Gertrude knows where the pistol is and she thought it necessary to go
with her father," Mrs. Colston said significantly. "We'll get off as soon
as you have asked Leslie for the buggy; I wish it had been the sleigh."

They drove away in half an hour; but Jernyngham reached the settlement
some time before they did. Leaving Gertrude at a drygoods store, he went
to the hotel, where the commissioned officer of police had a room. The
officer was acquainted with all that Prescott had told Curtis about his
absence in search of the missing man, and had been advised by telegraph
of the assistance he had rendered in Wandle's arrest. This was, however,
a matter that must stand in abeyance until he saw Curtis, for he had come
down to investigate some complaints about the reservation Indians, who
were in a restless, discontented state, and the business demanded careful
thought and handling. He was studying the report of a local constable
when there was a knock at the door, and he looked up with annoyance as
Jernyngham came in. The man had his sympathy, but he was troublesome.

"I'm afraid I can't spare you more than a minute or two," he said. "I'm
expecting a constable I've sent for."

"One would have imagined that my business was of the first importance,"
Jernyngham rejoined. "Have you any news of the fugitives?"

"Wandle has been arrested."

"Ah! That's satisfactory, though I don't think it will carry us very far.
His attempt to escape with Prescott, however, makes it obvious that they
were confederates."

The officer let this remark pass, for he was anxious to get rid of his
visitor. Jernyngham was piqued by his silence.

"I suppose you have not apprehended Prescott yet?" he resumed.

"No," answered the other shortly. "He will remain at liberty."

There was a knock at the door and a trooper looked in and withdrew.

"Mr. Jernyngham," said the officer, "if you will make an appointment to
meet me on my return from the reservation, I will be at your service, but
you must excuse me now. I have some instructions to give the constable,
who has a long ride before him."

"A minute, please; I'll be brief. Am I to understand that you have no
intention of seizing Prescott?"

"That is what I meant. So far as I can determine at present, we shall not
interfere with him."

Jernyngham's haggard face grew red with anger.

"What are your grounds for this extraordinary decision?" he demanded.

"A strong presumption of his innocence."

"Preposterous!" Jernyngham broke out. "The scoundrel killed my son, and
you refuse to move any further against him! I must carry the matter to
Ottawa; you leave me no recourse."

The officer rapped on the table and the trooper entered.

"Come and see me when I get back, Mr. Jernyngham, and we'll talk over the
thing again. I have other business which demands urgent attention now."

Jernyngham's face was deeply colored and the swollen veins showed on his
forehead.

"Understand that I insist on Prescott's arrest! I will, spare no effort
to secure it through your superiors!"

Seeing that he was in no mood to listen to reason, the officer let him
go, and Jernyngham walked slowly to the lobby downstairs. There were a
number of men in it, but two or three strolled into the bar and the
others drew away from him when he sat down. They were not without
compassion, but they shrank from the grim look in the man's worn face.
For a while he sat still, resting one elbow on a table, and trying to
arrange his confused thoughts. He knew nothing of Prescott's interview
with Curtis or the reason for his visit to Wandle on the night of the
latter's flight; the discovery of the brown clothes occupied the most
prominent place in his mind, and convinced him of Prescott's guilt.

Then he began to consider how he could best bring pressure to bear on the
administration in Ottawa. From inquiries he had made, it appeared less
easy than he had supposed. It was, he had been told, unusual for anybody
to interfere with the Northwest Police, who had been entrusted with
extensive powers; and there was a strong probability of his failing to
obtain satisfaction. It was, however, unthinkable that Prescott should
escape. Jernyngham's poignant sense of loss and regret for past harshness
to his son had merged into an overwhelming desire for vengeance on the
man whom he regarded as Cyril's murderer. He was left without an ally;
the organized means of justice had signally broken down; but the man
should not go unpunished.

Tormented by his thoughts, he went out in search of Gertrude.



CHAPTER XXIX

JERNYNGHAM BREAKS DOWN


Colston and his party were leaving the hotel, with Jernyngham and
Gertrude a few paces in front of them. A big lamp hung beneath the
veranda, and the light from the windows streamed out on the snow. While
Colston held the door open for his wife and Muriel to pass through a man
came hurriedly along the sidewalk and Colston started.

"Be quick!" he cried to Muriel. "It's Prescott!"

Letting the door swing to, he moved hastily forward, and then stopped,
seeing that he was too late to prevent the meeting. Jernyngham had
recognized the newcomer.

"Mr. Prescott," the old man cried, "a word with you!"

Prescott stopped with a troubled face a few yards away.

"If you insist, I'm at your service."

Colston drew nearer. Jernyngham's tone had alarmed him, and it's ominous
harshness was more marked when he resumed:

"For the last time, I ask you, where is my son?"

"I wish I knew," said Prescott quietly. "I believe he's in British
Columbia, but it's a big province and I lost trace of him there."

"It's a lie!" Jernyngham cried, hoarse with fury. "Your tricks won't
serve you; I'll have the truth!"

"Be calm, Mr. Jernyngham," Colston begged, touching his arm. "We'll have
a crowd here in a few moments. Come back into the hotel."

He was violently pushed away. Jernyngham's eyes glittered, his face was
grimly set; it was obvious that his self-control had deserted him. Seeing
that he could not be reasoned with, Colston left him alone and waited,
ready to interfere if necessary. The man, he thought, was in a dangerous
mood; the situation was liable to have alarming developments.

"Why don't you speak?" Jernyngham stormed at Prescott. "You shall not
leave the spot until we hear your confession!"

Prescott stood still, looking at him steadily, with pity in his face. He
made a striking figure in the glare of light, finely posed, with no sign
of shrinking. The others had fixed their eyes on him, and did not notice
Muriel move quietly through the shadow of the wooden pillars.

"I have nothing to confess," he said.

Jernyngham's fur coat was open and his hand dropped quickly to a pocket.
As he brought it out Colston sprang forward, a moment too late; but
Muriel was before him, her hand on the man's arm. There was a flash, a
sharp report, and blue smoke curled up toward the veranda, but Prescott
stood still, untouched.

"Be quick!" screamed Muriel. "He's trying to fire again!"

There was no time to be particular. Colston seized the elder man,
dragging him backward several paces before he wrenched the pistol from
him. Then he paused, breathless, looking about in a half-dazed fashion.
Everything had happened with startling suddenness, and the scene under
the veranda was an impressive one. His wife clutched one of the pillars
as if unnerved. Gertrude leaned against the sidewalk rail, her face tense
with horror, and Jernyngham stood with a slackness of carriage which
suggested that power of thought and physical force had suddenly left him.

"Jack, are you hurt?" cried Muriel clinging to Prescott.

The tension was relieved by the appearance of the commissioned officer,
who sprang out of the hotel with the constable close behind him.

"Shut the door and keep them in!" he ordered.

The constable obeyed, but his efforts were wasted, for men were already
hurrying out through the separate entrance to the bar and from an
adjoining store. Others ran out from the houses, and the street was
rapidly filling with an eager crowd.

"Stand back there!" called the officer sharply. Then he turned to the
group under the veranda. "Now what's this? I heard a shot!"

"Yes," said Colston, pulling himself together, though his manner was
confused; "there was one. I don't know how it happened--it was a surprise
to us all. I don't think the pistol's safe; it goes off too easily.
However, the most important thing is that nobody is hurt."

"That's fortunate. I'll take the weapon from you," replied the officer
dryly.

When Colston had given it to him, as if glad to be rid of it, the officer
noted the positions and attitudes of the others before he turned to
Prescott.

"Can you tell me anything?" he asked.

"I don't think so," Prescott answered. "Of course, I saw the flash, but
the bullet didn't come anywhere near me."

Then Gertrude's nerve gave way. All that had happened was her work; she
had, when her father was wavering and questioning the justice of his
suspicions, driven them back more firmly into his mind, and as a result
of this he had come near to killing an innocent man. Overwhelmed by the
thought, she swayed unsteadily and fell back against the rails.

"Miss Jernyngham is fainting!" Mrs. Colston cried, hurrying toward her.

"Bring her in!" said the officer; and when this was done, with Colston's
assistance, he called to the constable:

"Stand at the door; keep everybody out!"

The big lobby was cleared, and the officer gravely watched the way the
actors of the scene arranged themselves. Prescott stood well apart from
the others with Muriel at his side. She was flushed and overstrung, but
her pose and expression suggested that she was defying the rest, and she
cast a hard, unsympathetic glance at Gertrude, who sat limply, with
clenched hands. Colston, looking embarrassed and unhappy, sat near his
wife, who had preserved some composure. Jernyngham leaned against the
counter, dejected and apparently half dazed.

"Before you go any farther, I'd better tell you that I fired the shot,"
he said brokenly.

"When I came out, the pistol was in Mr. Colston's hand," the officer
pointed out in a meaning tone.

"That's true," Colston broke in. "I took it from him, for fear of an
accident. Mr. Jernyngham was in a very nervous and excited state. He has,
of course, been bearing a heavy strain, and I imagine you must have said
something that rather upset his balance."

"I was perfectly sensible!" Jernyngham harshly interrupted him. "I found
I could get no assistance from the police; it looked as if my son's death
must go unavenged!"

Colston raised his hand to check him. Jernyngham could not be allowed to
explain his action, as he seemed bent on doing.

"No! no!" he said soothingly, "you mustn't think of it! Please let me
speak." He addressed the officer. "You can see the nervous state Mr.
Jernyngham is in--very natural, of course, but I think it should appeal
to your consideration."

The officer reflected. He had been brought up in the old country, and
could sympathize with the people before him; they deserved pity, and he
had no wish to humiliate them. Moreover, Miss Hurst, whom he admired,
seemed to be involved. These reasons could not be allowed to carry much
weight, but there were others. It was obvious that Jernyngham was hardly
responsible for his actions; the man's worn and haggard face showed that
he had been severely tried. Justice would not be served by probing the
matter too deeply, and Colston's attitude indicated that this would be
difficult.

"As you seem to be the one who had the narrowest escape, Mr. Prescott,
have you any complaint to make?" he said.

"None whatever. I'm sorry the thing has made so much stir."

"It was my duty to investigate it. But I think that a charge of
unlawfully carrying dangerous weapons, which is punishable by a fine,
will meet the case." He turned to the trooper. "You will attend to the
matter in due course, Constable Slade."

Then he bowed to the company and went out, leaving Colston to deal with
the situation with the assistance of his wife, who thought it desirable
to break up the party as soon as possible.

"The teams must be ready, and it's too cold to keep them standing," she
remarked.

"They're outside," said Colston. "We'll be mobbed by an inquisitive
crowd, if we don't get off at once. Gertrude, bring your father."

Gertrude led Jernyngham to the door, and Colston turned back to Prescott.

"It was very regretable," he said. "We are grateful for your
forbearance."

Then his wife joined him, calling to Muriel.

"Be quick! The people haven't gone away; the street's full!"

Muriel, disregarding her, looked at Prescott, who had spoken to nobody
except the officer. His face was troubled, but he made no attempt to
detain her.

"I believe you saved my life," he said. "I can't thank you now. May I
call to-morrow?"

"We should be glad to see you," Mrs. Colston broke in hurriedly; "but,
with Mr. Jernyngham at the homestead, wouldn't it be embarrassing?
Muriel, we really can't wait."

The girl smiled at Prescott.

"Yes," she said quietly, "come when you wish."

Then her sister, knowing that she was beaten, drew her firmly away.

They went out and Prescott sat down, feeling that he had done right and
yet half ashamed of his reserve, for he had seen that Muriel had expected
him to claim her and was ready to acknowledge him before her friends.
This, however, was when she was overstrung and under the influence of
strong excitement; the sacrifice she did not shrink from making was a
heavy one, and she must have an opportunity for considering it calmly. He
was not long left undisturbed, for men flocked in, anxious for an account
of the affair, but he put them off with evasive answers and, making his
escape, hurried to the livery-stable where he hired a team.

The next afternoon he drove to Leslie's in a quietly exultant mood. His
long fight was over; nature had beaten him, and he was glad to yield,
though he had not done so under sudden stress of passion. During his
search for Jernyngham and afterward sitting by his stove on bitter
nights, he had come to see that if the girl he desired loved him, no
merely prudential reasons ought to separate them. He had feared to drag
her down, to rob her of things she valued, but he now saw that she might,
after all, hold them of little account. He was, for his station, a
prosperous man; his wife need suffer no real deprivation; he had a firm
belief in the future of his adopted country, and knew that in a little
while all the amenities of civilized life could be enjoyed in it.
Wandle's trial would free him of suspicion; when he had stood facing
Jernyngham, Muriel had revealed her love for him, and since it could not
be doubted, he need not hesitate. It was her right to choose whether she
would marry him. Only she must clearly realize all that this would imply.

He had expected some opposition from Mrs. Colston, but, when it was
inevitable, she could gracefully bear defeat. Moreover, she had never
agreed with Jernyngham's suspicions of Prescott, and in some respects he
impressed her favorably. There was no reserve in her greeting when he
reached the homestead.

"The less that is said about last night, the better, but I can't pass
over it without expressing our gratitude for the position you took," she
said. "Harry has driven Jernyngham out in the sleigh--he has been in a
curious limp state all morning--and Gertrude has not yet got over the
shock."

"It must have been very trying for Miss Jernyngham."

"No doubt." There was not much pity in Mrs. Colston's voice, for she
could guess how matters stood. "However, I am disengaged and I believe
Muriel will be here directly."

Prescott followed her into a room and made an effort to talk to her until
she rose and went out as Muriel entered. The girl, to his surprise, was
dressed in furs, and he felt his heart beat when she looked at him with a
shy smile.

"I have been expecting you," she said, giving him her hand.

"I wonder," he asked gravely, "whether you can guess why I have come?"

"Yes," she answered in a steady voice; "I think I can. But we'll go out,
Jack."

He followed her, puzzled, but not questioning her wish, and they walked
silently down the beaten trail that stretched away, a streak of grayish
blue, across the glittering snow. Brilliant sunshine streamed down on
them and the nipping air was wonderfully clear. When they passed a birch
bluff that hid them from the house; Prescott stopped.

"Muriel," he said, "I think you know that I love you."

There was a warm color in her face, but for a moment she met his eyes
squarely.

"Yes; I knew it some time ago, though perhaps I should have shrunk from
confessing that so frankly, if it hadn't been for last night. But why
were you afraid of telling me, Jack?"

He read surrender in her face and yielding pose, and with a strange
humility that tempered the wild thrill of delight he placed his arm about
her. Then, as she crept closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder,
every feeling was lost in a delirious sense of triumph. It was brief, for
he remembered how he was handicapped, and he held her from him, looking
gravely down at her.

"Dear, there is something to be said."

"Yes," she rejoined with tender mockery; "you either took a great deal
for granted or there was one important thing you were willing to leave in
doubt. Now take my hands and hold them fast. You know I have suffered
something--fears and anxieties because of you--I want to feel safe."

He did as she bade him and she looked up.

"Now listen, Jack dear. All that I have to give, my love, my closest
trust, is yours, and because you said I saved your life, that belongs to
me. I think it's all that matters."

He was silent for a few moments, overwhelmed by a sense of his
responsibility.

"Still," he urged, "you must understand what you are risking. I should
have told you first."

Muriel released her hands, and her glance was grave.

"Yes; you had better continue, Jack. I suppose we must speak of these
things now, and then forget them forever."

"You know what Jernyngham believed of me. I could not marry you with such
a stain on my name; but it will be wiped off in a few more days, and this
I owe to you. It was you who insisted that I should clear myself."

She started.

"Remember that I know nothing, except that you went away."

Prescott told her briefly what he had learned at Navarino and of Wandle's
capture; and her deep satisfaction was obvious.

"I'm so glad!" she exclaimed. "This will make it easier for the others,
though it doesn't affect me. If I had had any doubts, I couldn't have
loved you. But I'm pleased you told me before you were really cleared. To
have waited until everybody knew you were innocent would have looked as
if you were afraid to test my faith in you."

"No," he said; "that couldn't be. I was afraid of your having to make too
heavy a sacrifice; and, unfortunately, there's some risk of that still."

"Go on, Jack."

"I'm far from a rich man, though I never regretted it much until of late.
You know how we live here; I can guess what you have enjoyed at home.
Life's strenuous on the prairie, and though I think it's good, it makes
demands on one you can't have felt in England. There's so much that you
must give up, many things that you will miss. I am anxious when I think
of it."

Muriel looked far across the plain which ran back; glistening in the
sunlight, until it faded into cold blues and purples toward the skyline.
The gray bluffs, standing one behind the other, and the long straggling
line of timber by a ravine marked its vast extent. It filled the girl
with a sense of freedom; its wideness uplifted her.

"Jack," she said, "I wonder whether you can understand why I made you
take me out? The prairie has drawn me from the beginning, and I felt it
would be easier to make a great change in this wonderful open space; I
wanted to adopt the country, to feel it belonged to me. Now that I've
made my choice, my home is where you are; I want nothing but to be loved
and cared for, as you must care for me."

Prescott drew her toward him, but there was more of respect than passion
in his caress.

"My dear," he said gravely, "I feel very humble as well as thankful. It's
a great thing I've undertaken, to make you happy; and I think you'll try
to forgive me if I sometimes fail."

Muriel laughed and shook herself free.

"I'm not really hard to please, and even if you make mistakes now and
then, good intentions count for a good deal. But you are dreadfully
solemn, and there's so much that is pleasant to talk about."

They walked on briskly, for it had been possible to stand still only in
the shelter of the bluff with bright sunshine streaming down on them; the
cold they had forgotten now made itself felt.

"I can't understand Jernyngham," Prescott said after a while. "One can't
blame him for persecuting me, but there's something in his conduct that
makes one think him off his balance."

Muriel's eyes sparkled with indignation.

"I suppose he ought to be pitied, but I can't forgive him, and I'll tell
you what I think. He has led a well-regulated life, but his virtues are
narrow and petty. Indeed, I think they're partly habits. He is not a
clever or a really strong man; but because of his money and position,
which he never ventured out of, he found people to obey him and grew into
a domineering autocrat. I believe he was fond of Cyril and felt what he
thought of as his loss; but that was not all. The shock brought him a
kind of horrified anger that anything of a startling nature should happen
to him--he felt it wasn't what he deserved. Then his desire for justice
degenerated into cruelty and when he came out here, where nobody gave way
to him, he somehow went to pieces. His nature wasn't big enough to stand
the strain."

It was a harsh analysis, but Muriel was not inclined to be charitable.
Jernyngham had made things very hard for her lover.

"I dare say you're right," responded Prescott. "But the morning after he
reached my place in the blizzard I had a talk with him and found him
reasonable. I think he half believed in my innocence, but soon afterward
he was more savage than before."

"Isn't it possible that you took too much for granted? He couldn't be
rude to you when you had saved him from freezing."

"I don't think I did. He was pretty candid at first and I wasn't cordial,
but he listened to me, and I feel convinced that before he left he was
beginning to see that he might have been mistaken. What I don't
understand is why he changed again, when nothing fresh turned up to
account for it."

A light dawned on Muriel. She saw Gertrude's work in this and her face
flushed with anger, but it was not a subject she meant to discuss with
the man she loved.

"Well," she said, "it's scarcely likely that you will learn the truth.
After all, much of Jernyngham's conduct can't be explained." She smiled
at Prescott. "If he'd had any reason in him, he would never have doubted
you."

They turned back to the homestead presently and on reaching it Prescott
found that Colston had arrived. The latter gave him an interview in the
barn, which was the only place where they could be alone, and listened
with a thoughtful air to what he had to say. This included an account of
his meeting with Laxton and the pursuit of Wandle.

"I'm in an unfortunate position," Colston remarked when Prescott had
finished. "You see, every prudential consideration urges me to oppose
you--looked at from that point of view the match is most undesirable--but
I must admit my sympathy with you, and I don't suppose my opposition
would have much effect."

"It certainly wouldn't," Prescott replied.

"After all," Colston resumed, "I have no real authority; Muriel's of age
and she has no property. Still, I'm fond of the girl and am anxious about
her future. I think you ought to satisfy me that you're able to take care
of her."

"I'll try."

Prescott gave him a concise account of his means, his farming operations,
and his plans for the future; and Colston listened with satisfaction. The
man was more prosperous than he had supposed and had carefully considered
what could be done to secure the comfort of his wife; his schemes
included the rebuilding of his house. It was obvious that Muriel need not
suffer greatly from the change. Moreover, Colston had liked Prescott from
the beginning and had found it hard to distrust him, even when
appearances were blackest against him.

"All this," he said frankly, "is a relief to me. But there's another and
more important point." He paused a moment before he continued: "To my
mind your name is cleared, but you must agree that the mystery isn't
unraveled yet. Although I have no power to interfere, Muriel is my wife's
sister and I think she owes my views some deference. Neither of us can
countenance an engagement or your meeting Muriel often while a doubt
remains. The matter must stand over."

"I must yield to that; you have been more liberal than I could have
expected." Then Prescott smiled. "There's only one thing which could
really clear me--the reappearance of my victim; and I don't despair of
it. The police are trying to trace him on the Pacific Slope, but it would
be quite in accordance with his character if he suddenly turned up here."

They went out together, shivering a little, for the barn was very cold,
but they were on friendly terms and were mutually satisfied.



CHAPTER XXX

PRESCOTT'S VINDICATION


On the day after Prescott's avowal, Muriel found Gertrude alone and sat
down opposite her.

"Don't you think you ought to insist on your father's going home?" she
asked. "The strain is wearing him out; he may lose his reason if he
stays."

Gertrude looked up sharply. There was no sympathy in the girl's tone and
her eyes were hard. Muriel might have forgiven a wrong done to herself,
but she was merciless about an injury to one she loved.

"Ah!" exclaimed Gertrude. "You wish to get rid of us?"

"No; my suggestion was really generous, because I would much rather you
both remained and saw Mr. Prescott proved innocent."

Not knowing what had prompted her rival, Gertrude gave her jealous anger
rein.

"I'm afraid we couldn't wait. Even my father's patience would hardly hold
out."

"It wouldn't be long tried; but in a way you're right. It's dangerous for
him to stay here, and you're responsible for his condition."

"I'm responsible?" cried Gertrude with a start.

"Of course! You knew Mr. Prescott went away to look for your brother and
you kept it secret; when he saved your father from freezing, he almost
convinced him that he had nothing to do with Cyril's disappearance. You
must have known how it would have eased his mind to get rid of his
dreadful suspicions, but you worked upon him and brought them back."

Gertrude sank down in her chair with a shiver. A denial would serve no
purpose and she was conscious of her guilt.

"Could you expect me to be indifferent to the loss of my brother?"

"You knew you had not lost him. You believed what Mr. Prescott told you,
until we came." Muriel flushed and hesitated, for this was as far as she
would go. Even in her anger, she would not taunt her beaten rival with
defeat. "Now," she continued, "you must see what you have done. You have
made your father suffer terribly; I think you have weakened his mind,
and, if I hadn't turned the pistol, you would have made him kill an
innocent man. He seems too dazed and shaken to realize what he meant to
do, but the thing was horrible."

Gertrude sat silent for a few moments, her face drawn and colorless. Then
she looked up.

"I couldn't see what it would lead to. Do the others know what you have
told me? Does Mr. Prescott?"

She looked crushed and defenseless and Muriel's resentment softened.

"No," she said. "Nobody knows, and Mr. Prescott will never suspect; he's
not the man to think hard things of a woman. But I'm going to insist on
your taking your father away."

"But how can I?" cried Gertrude. "You know how determined he is!"

"You have influenced him already; you must do so again. You will regret
it all your life if you let him stay."

"Well," Gertrude promised desperately, "I will try." Then a thought
struck her and her expression grew gentler. "Muriel, have you realized
that if we leave here soon, the Colstons will accompany us and you will
have to go with them?"

"No," Muriel replied with a resolute smile; "I will stay."

Gertrude turned her head and there was silence for a while. Then she said
with an effort:

"I can't ask your forgiveness; it would be too much, and I'm not sure
that I wish to have it. But I feel that you are generous."

"Take your father home," Muriel responded, and getting up went quietly
out.

During the next fortnight, Gertrude exerted all her powers of persuasion,
without much success. Jernyngham was apathetic, moody, and morose, and
his companions found the days pass heavily. Then one evening Prescott
drove over with the excuse of a message for Leslie, and Muriel, putting
on her furs, slipped out to speak to him before he left. They stood near
the barn, talking softly, until there was a pause and Muriel looked out
across the prairie. It was a clear, cold evening; a dull red glow blazed
above the great plain's rim, and the bluffs stood out in wavy masses with
sharp distinctness. The snow had lost its glitter and was fading into
soft blues and grays.

The darker line of the trail caught the girl's eye and, following it, she
noticed a horseman riding toward the homestead.

"Nobody has been here for a while," she said. "I wonder who it can be?"

Prescott's team, which had been growing impatient of the cold, began to
move, and he was occupied for the next minute in quieting them. Then he
looked around, started violently, and stood very still, his eyes fixed on
the approaching man.

"Jernyngham, by all that's wonderful!" he gasped, and sent a shout
ringing across the snow: "Cyril!"

The man waved his hand, and Prescott, turning at a sound, saw Muriel lean
weakly against the side of the sleigh. The color had faded from her face,
but her eyes were shining.

"O Jack!" she said breathlessly. "Now everything will be put straight!"

Prescott realized from the greatness of her relief what she had borne on
his account; but there was something that must be done and he ran to the
stable, where Leslie was at work.

"Get into my sleigh, and drive to Harper's as hard as you can!" he said.
"Curtis was there when I passed; bring him here at once!"

Leslie came out with him and understood when he saw the newcomer. Jumping
into the vehicle, he drove off, while Prescott ran to meet Cyril, who
dismounted and heartily shook hands with him.

"It's good to see you, Jack," he said, and indicated the galloping team.
"The sensation I seem to make shows no signs of lessening."

"Haven't you heard!" Prescott exclaimed. "Don't you understand?"

"Not much," Cyril replied with a careless laugh. "When I got off the
train at the settlement, everybody stared at me, and there were anxious
inquiries as to where I'd been. I promised to tell them about it another
time, and at the livery-stable Kevan said something about my being
killed. I told him it didn't look like it; and as the boys seemed
determined on hearing my adventures; I rode off smartly. When I reached
your place, Svendsen looked scared, and all I could get out of him was
that you were here."

Prescott made a gesture of comprehension. It was typical of Cyril that he
had not taken the trouble to find out the cause of the excitement his
appearance had aroused.

"Who is the lady?" Cyril asked.

"Miss Hurst. You had, perhaps, better know that she has promised to marry
me."

Cyril looked at him in frank astonishment, and then laughed.

"I suppose my surprise isn't complimentary, but I wasn't prepared for
your news. Jack, you're rather wonderful, but you have my best wishes,
and you can tell me what brought Miss Hurst back by and by. No doubt she
expects me to speak to her."

"Thanks," said Prescott dryly. "Whatever my capabilities of making a
sensation are, they're a long way behind yours."

They walked toward the girl and Prescott led up his companion.

"Muriel," he said, "Cyril Jernyngham wishes to be presented to you."

She gave him her hand, and he realized that she was studying him
carefully.

"I'm glad we have met," she said. "I have heard a good deal about you."

Cyril bowed with a mischievous smile.

"Nothing very much to my credit, I'm afraid. As an old friend of Jack's,
it's my privilege to wish you every happiness and assure you that you
have got a much better man than the one you at first took him for."

Muriel colored.

"Jack stands on his own merits."

Then she turned to Prescott.

"Does he know? Have you told him?"

"Not yet. I've news for you, Cyril. Your father and sister are here."

"What brought them?" There was astonishment in Cyril's face, but he
looked more disturbed than pleased.

"They thought you dead," Muriel told him.

"Then I'm sorry if they've been anxious, but I can't understand the
grounds for it. In fact, everybody I've met seems to have gone crazy,
except you and Jack."

"We knew the truth," said Muriel. "There are a number of explanations you
will have to make, but you had better go in."

The next moment the door opened and Gertrude appeared, as if in search of
Muriel. She saw the group and broke into a startled cry.

"Cyril!"

He ran toward her and Prescott suggested that it might be advisable for
him to retire, but Muriel would not agree.

"Give them a few minutes, Jack, and then we'll go in together; you are
one of us now and must be acknowledged. Besides, you have a right to hear
what Cyril has to say."

They walked briskly up the trail and when they turned to come back Muriel
glanced at Prescott with a smile.

"Jack dear, I like him, but he said something that was true. I should
never have fallen in love with the real Cyril Jernyngham."

They found the others in the large sitting-room. Cyril was talking gaily,
though Prescott concluded from one remark that he had not yet given a
full account of his adventures. Jernyngham sat rather limply in an
easy-chair, as if the relief of finding his son safe had shaken him, but
his eyes were less troubled and his manner calmer. He rose when he saw
Prescott.

"Mr. Prescott," he said, "I must own before these others, who have heard
me speak hardly of you, that I have done you a grievous wrong. I have no
excuse to urge in asking you to forgive it. There is nothing that now
seems to mitigate my folly."

"All you thought and did was very natural, sir," Prescott answered
quietly. "I tried not to blame you and I feel no resentment."

"What's this?" Cyril glanced up sharply, and as he noticed the guilty
faces of the others and Gertrude's strained expression, the truth dawned
on him.

"Oh!" he cried, "it's preposterous! You all suspected my best friend!"

"If it's any consolation, we're very much ashamed of it," Colston
replied. "And there was one exception; Muriel never shared our views."

Cyril still looked disturbed.

"Its obvious that I've given everybody a good deal of trouble, but I feel
that you deserved it for your foolishness. May I ask on what grounds you
suspected Jack?"

Seeing that none of them was ready to answer, Prescott interposed.

"Perhaps I had better explain; I think you ought to know."

He related the events that had followed his friend's disappearance, and
when he had finished, Cyril turned to the others.

"After all, you were not so much to blame as I thought at first--you
don't know Jack as I do, and things undoubtedly looked bad. Now I'll give
you an account of my adventures and clear up the mystery."

"Not yet," said Prescott with a smile. "You don't seem to realize that
instead of excusing people for suspicions they could hardly avoid, you're
expected to make some defense for the carelessness that gave rise to
them. Anyway, Curtis is entitled to an explanation, and as I sent him
word, he should be here soon."

"You did right," Jernyngham broke in with a trace of asperity. "It's
proper that the blundering fellow who misled us all should have his
stupidity impressed on him!"

They waited, talking about indifferent matters, until Curtis arrived. At
Cyril's request he made a rough diagram of the tracks he had discovered
in the neighborhood of the muskeg and stated his theory of what had
happened there.

"A clever piece of reasoning," Cyril remarked. "There's scarcely a flaw
in it, as you'll see by my account of the affair. After saying good-by to
Prescott on the night I left the settlement, I went on until I was near
the muskeg and had dismounted to camp when a stranger rode up. We sat
talking for a while and I foolishly told him I meant to buy some horses
and apply for a railroad haulage contract, from which he no doubt
concluded I was carrying some money. Soon afterward, he went off to
hobble his horse, and I suppose he must have crept up behind me and
knocked me out with the handle of his quirt, for I fell over with a
stupefying pain in my head. This was the last thing I was clearly
conscious of until the next morning, when I found myself lying close to
the water, but at some distance from where I met the man. My hat had gone
and my head was cut; my horse had disappeared, and I afterward discovered
I had been robbed."

Cyril paused and glanced at Curtis.

"There's a point to be accounted for--how I reached the spot where I was
lying, and this is my suggestion: The fellow thought he had killed me and
in alarm determined to throw me into the muskeg. As I had a hazy
recollection of being roughly lifted, I imagine he laid me across his
saddle and after a while I must have moved or groaned. Then, having no
doubt only meant to stun me, he left me on the ground. All this fits in
with your theory."

"What was the man like?" Curtis asked.

Cyril described him, explaining that there was a good moon; and the
corporal nodded, as if satisfied.

"Then I'm glad to say that, as I half expected, we have got the fellow;
corralled him for horse-stealing a while ago, and he'll be charged with
robbing you in due time. But go on."

"I felt horribly thirsty, and crawling to the edge of the sloo, tumbled
in. There was more slime than water, but I could see a cleaner pool some
way out, and being up to my knees already, I tried to reach it. It was
hardly fit to drink, but I felt better and clearer-headed after
swallowing some; and then I noticed thick grass in front of me. This
implied that the swamp was shallower there and I made for the other bank,
instead of going back. The grass and reeds that I disturbed would soon
straighten, which accounts for your losing my tracks. You wouldn't have
expected me to wade across the muskeg?"

"No," admitted Curtis; "I didn't."

"Why did you not return to Sebastian after being robbed of your horse and
money?" Jernyngham asked.

"Ah!" said Cyril with some constraint in his manner, "that's more
difficult to explain. To some extent it was a matter of temperament. I
had left the settlement after a painful and rather humiliating discovery;
you can understand that I was anxious to avoid my neighbors. Then I'd
been knocked out and robbed by the first rascal I fell in with. I hadn't
the courage to crawl back in my battered state and face the boys'
amusement; and there was something that appealed to me in the thought of
cutting loose and going on without a dollar, to see what I could do." He
smiled at his father and sister. "You know I had always rather eccentric
ideas."

Then he recounted his adventures along the railroad under the name of
Kermode, until Prescott interrupted him.

"I followed you to the abandoned claim in the mountains, where I had to
give it up. How did you make out after you struck south with the
prospector crank?"

"That was the most interesting part of the trip, but I could hardly
describe it. We crawled up icy rocks, found a river we could travel on
here and there, scrambled through brush that ripped our clothes and over
stones that cut our boots to bits, and finally came down by Quesnelle to
the Canadian Pacific main track."

"Loaded with worthless mineral specimens?"

Cyril laughed.

"They were pretty heavy, Jack. Once or twice I thought of dumping my
share of them, but it's fortunate that Hollin, who seemed to suspect my
intentions, kept his eye on me when I got played out. You see, an assayer
we took them to found that they were rich in lead and silver."

Prescott's astonishment was obvious and Cyril frankly enjoyed it.

"Well," he said, "the end of it was that I called on some of the mining
people in Vancouver--it seems they knew Hollin and had had enough of
him--but I left one office with a check for a thousand dollars, besides
retaining an interest in the claim. Hollin has gone back to see about its
development."

His father and sister looked as surprised as Prescott. One could imagine
that they found it difficult to conceive of Cyril's financial success,
but they offered him their congratulations, and soon afterward Curtis
took his leave. Prescott stayed another hour, and when he went Muriel
walked to the door with him.

"Jack," she murmured, with her head on his shoulder, "I'm inexpressibly
glad it has all come right; but you must remember that I knew it would."

Prescott gently turned her face toward him.

"I'm so thankful that it makes me grave. It's a pretty big task to repay
your confidence, but I'll try."

"You'll succeed," she said smiling. "You're rather a determined man and
I'm not dreadfully exacting; I couldn't be to you."

Prescott drove off, grateful for Mrs. Colston's permission to come back
the next day.

When he drove up on the following afternoon, he found Muriel dressed in
furs.

"It's beautifully fine and you may take me for a drive," she said, and
added with a smile: "That is, unless you would rather talk to Harry."

"I think Colston and I are going to be good friends, but I didn't come
over to see him," Prescott retorted lightly. "I have something to say to
Cyril, but it will do when we get back."

"You can't see him now," said Muriel, moving toward the sleigh. "He's
engaged with Gertrude and his father, and I think they have something
important to talk about. Cyril looked very serious, and one would imagine
that's not often the case with him."

Prescott laughed as he helped her in.

"I dare say he has his thoughtful moments; it would be surprising if he
hadn't, considering his capacity for getting into scrapes."

They drove away, but Muriel's supposition was well founded, for Cyril was
feeling unusually grave as he sat opposite to his father and sister in a
room of the homestead. A brief silence had fallen upon the group,
emphasized by the crackle of poplar billets in the stove. Jernyngham, in
whose appearance there had been a marked improvement since his son's
return, wore an eager expression; Gertrude was watching her brother with
troubled eyes.

"You have heard my suggestions about your return to England," Jernyngham
said at length. "I think they are fair."

"They are generous," Cyril answered, and added slowly: "But I cannot go."

Jernyngham leaned back in his chair as if he were weary, with keen
disappointment in his face.

"I have no other son, Cyril. We will wipe out the past--there is
something to regret on both sides--and try to make everything pleasant
for you. I feel that you ought to come."

"No," Cyril persisted with signs of strain. "I'm strongly tempted, but it
would not be wise."

Jernyngham looked hard at him and then made a sign of resignation.

"You will, at least, give us your reasons."

"I'll try, though I'm not sure you will understand them; it's unfortunate
we're so different that we cannot find a common viewpoint from which to
look at things. I believe I've overcome what bitterness I once felt, but
in all that's essential I haven't changed. After the first few weeks, I
should jar on you, or I should have to be continually on my guard, until
the repression got too much for me and the inevitable outbreak came."

"Why should there be an outbreak?" his father asked with some asperity.

Cyril glanced at Gertrude, noticing her rather weary smile, and fancied
that she could sympathize with him, which was more than he had expected.
She had somehow gained comprehension in Canada.

"I suppose I must explain. I'm not thinking of my worst faults, but, you
see, I'm a careless trifler, impatient of restraint. To have to do things
in stereotyped order distresses me; I must go where my fancy leads. When
I'm cooped up and confined, I feel I must break loose, even if it leads
to havoc." He laughed. "Of course, such a frame of mind is beyond your
imagining."

"I must confess that it is," Jernyngham replied dryly.

Gertrude cast a half-applauding glance at her brother. With all his
failings, which she recognized and deplored, Cyril was to her something
of a romantic hero. He took risks, and did daring and perhaps somewhat
discreditable things, but, narrow as her decorous life had been, she
envied his reckless gallantry. Once she had ventured to break through the
safe rules of conduct and grasp at romance, but it had eluded her and
left her humiliation and regret. She must go back to the dreary routine
wherein lay security, but she admired him for standing out.

"Well," said Cyril, "I'm talking at large; but we must thrash out the
matter once for all. I may do something useful here--make wheat grow;
perhaps help in developing the mine--which I couldn't do at home." He
paused and concluded whimsically: "It's even possible that I may turn
into a successful rancher."

"But that means working like an English field laborer!"

"For a higher pay. When the crop escapes drought and frost, and there's
no hail or rust, western farming's fairly profitable."

"In short," said Jernyngham, "you have made up your mind not to come home
with us."

"I'm sorry it is so," Cyril responded gravely. "Try to understand. If I
stay here, we will be good friends and you will think well of me. If I go
home there will be trouble and regret for you. I want to save you that."

"Father," Gertrude broke in softly, "though it's hard to say, I know that
Cyril's right."

Jernyngham got up wearily.

"There is nothing more that I can urge. You must do as you think best, my
son, but while I shall never quite grasp your point of view, you will
always be in our thoughts."

They were glad to separate, for the interview had been trying to them
all.

Some time had passed when Cyril, hearing a beat of hoofs, went out and
found Prescott pulling up his team.

"We have been talking over matters while you were out," he told him. "As
I've decided to stay here, my people are going home soon--in a week or
two, I think; and I expect Colston will leave with them. I thought you
might like to know."

He saw the color creep into Muriel's face; and when he turned back to the
house Prescott lifted the girl down from the sleigh.

"Dear, I can't let them take you away," he said.

Muriel glanced across the snowy plain to the blaze of fading color upon
its western rim. It was growing shadowy, the woods were blurred and
vague, but its wideness fired her imagination and she felt the
exhilaration that was in the nipping air.

"Jack," she smiled up at him, "my home is here! I'm learning to love the
prairie, and it has brought me happiness. I'm glad to stay with you!"

THE END





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