The night wore away. There was no question of travel. Beresford was in the grip of a raging fever and could not be moved. Morse made West chop wood while he stood over him, rifle in hand. They were short of food and had expected to go hunting next day. The supplies might last at best six or seven more meals. What was to be done then? Morse could not go and leave West where he could get at the man who had put him in prison and with a dog-train to carry him north. Nor could he let West have a rifle with which to go in search of game.
There were other problems that made the situation impossible. Another night was at hand, and again Tom must keep awake to save himself and his friend from the gorilla-man who watched him, gloated over him, waited for the moment to come when he could safely strike. And after that there would be other nights—many of them.
What should he do? What could he do? While he sat beside the delirious officer, Tom pondered that question. On the other side of the fire lay the prisoner. Triumph—a horrible, cruel, menacing triumph—rode in his eye and strutted in his straddling walk when he got up. His hour was coming. It was coming fast.
Once Tom fell asleep for a cat-nap. He caught himself nodding, and with a jerk flung back his head and himself to wakefulness. In the air was a burning odor.
Instinct told him what it was. West had been tampering with the rawhide thongs round his wrists, had been trying to burn them away.
He made sure that the fellow was still fast, then drank a tin cup of strong tea. After he had fed the sick man a little caribou broth, persuading him with infinite patience to take it, a spoonful at a time, Morse sat down again to wear out the hours of darkness.
The problem that pressed on him could no longer be evaded. A stark decision lay before him. To postpone it was to choose one of the alternatives. He knew now, almost beyond any possibility of doubt, that either West must die or else he and his friend. If he had not snatched himself awake so promptly an hour ago, Win and he would already be dead men. It might be that the constable was going to die, anyhow, but he had a right to his chance of life.
On the other hand there was one rigid rule of the North-West Mounted. The Force prided itself on living up to it literally. When a man was sent out to get a prisoner, he brought him in alive. It was a tradition. The Mounted did not choose the easy way of killing lawbreakers because of the difficulty of capturing them. They walked through danger, usually with aplomb, got their man, and brought him in.
That was what Beresford had done with Pierre Poulette after the Frenchman had killed Buckskin Jerry. He had followed the man for months, captured him, lived with him alone for a fourth of a year in the deep snows, and brought him back to punishment. It was easy enough to plead that this situation was a wholly different one. Pierre Poulette was no such dangerous wild beast as Bully West. Win did not have with him a companion wounded almost to death who had to be nursed back to health, one struck down by the prisoner treacherously. There was just a fighting chance for the officers to get back to Desolation if West was eliminated from the equation. Tom knew he would have a man's work cut out for him to win through—without the handicap of the prisoner.
Deep in his heart he believed that it was West's life or theirs. It wasn't humanly possible, in addition to all the other difficulties that pressed on him, to guard this murderer and bring him back for punishment. There was no alternative, it seemed to Tom. Thinking could not change the conditions. It might be sooner, it might be later, but under existing circumstances the desperado would find his chance to attack, if he were alive to take it.
The fellow's life was forfeit. As soon as he was turned over to the State, it would be exacted of him. Since his assault on Beresford, surely he had lost all claim to consideration as a human being.
Just now there were only three men in the world so far as they were concerned. These three constituted society. Beresford, his mind still wandering with incoherent mutterings, was a non-voting member. He, Tom Morse, must be judge and jury. He must, if the prisoner were convicted, play a much more horrible role. In the silence of the cold sub-Arctic night he fought the battle out while automatically he waited on his friend.
West snored on the other side of the fire.
NEAR THE END OF A LONG CROOKED TRAIL
When West awoke, Morse was whittling on a piece of wood with his sharp hunting-knife. It was a flat section from a spruce, and it had been trimmed with an axe till it resembled a shake in shape.
The outlaw's curiosity overcame his sullenness at last. It made him jumpy, anyhow, to sit there in silence except for the muttering of the sick man.
"Whajamakin'?" he demanded.
Morse said nothing. He smoothed the board to his satisfaction, then began lettering on it with a pencil.
"I said whajadoin'," growled West, after another silence.
The special constable looked at him, and in the young man's eyes there was something that made the murderer shiver.
"I'm making a tombstone."
"What?" West felt a drench of ice at his heart.
"A marker for a grave."
"For—for him? Maybe he won't die. Looks better to me. Fever ain't so high."
"It's not for him."
West moistened his dry lips with his tongue. "You will have yore li'l joke, eh? Who's it for?"
"For me?" The man's fear burst from him in a shriek. "Whajamean for me?"
From the lettering Morse read aloud. "'Bully West, Executed, Some Time late in March, 1875.'" And beneath it, "'May God Have Mercy on His Soul.'"
Tiny beads of sweat gathered on the convict's clammy forehead. "You aimin' to—to murder me?" he asked hoarsely.
"To execute you."
"With—without a trial? My God, you can't do that! I got a right to a trial."
"You've been tried—and condemned. I settled all that in the night."
"But—it ain't legal. Goddlemighty, you got no right to act thataway. All you can do is to take me back to the courts." The heavy voice broke again to a scream.
Morse slipped the hunting-knife back into its case. He looked steadily at the prisoner. In his eyes there was no anger, no hatred. But back of the sadness in them was an implacable resolution.
"Courts and the law are a thousand miles away," he said. "You know your crimes. You murdered Tim Kelly treacherously. You planned to spoil an innocent girl's life by driving her to worse than death. You shot your partner in the back after he did his best to help you escape. You tortured Onistah and would have killed him if we hadn't come in time. You assaulted my friend here and he'll probably die from his wounds. It's the end of the long trail for you, Bully West. Inside of half an hour you will be dead. If you've anything to say—if you can make your peace with heaven—don't waste a moment."
The face of West went gray. He stared at the other man, the horror-filled eyes held fascinated. "You—you're tryin' to scare me," he faltered. "You wouldn't do that. You couldn't. It ain't allowed by the Commissioner." One of the bound arms twitched involuntarily. The convict knew that he was lost. He had a horrible conviction that this man meant to do as he had said.
The face of Morse was inexorable as fate itself, but inside he was a river of rushing sympathy. This man was bad. He himself had forced the circumstances that made it impossible to let him live. None the less Tom felt like a murderer. The thing he had to do was so horribly cold-blooded. If this had been a matter between the two of them, he could at least have given the fellow a chance for his life. But not now—not with Win Beresford in the condition he was. If he were going to save his friend, he could not take the chances of a duel.
"Ten minutes now," Morse said. His voice was hoarse and low. He felt his nerves twitching, a tense aching in the throat.
"I always liked you fine, Tom," the convict pleaded desperately. "Me 'n' you was always good pals. You wouldn't do me dirt thataway now. If you knew the right o' things—how that Kelly kep' a-devilin' me, how Whaley was layin' to gun me when he got a chanct, how I stood up for the McRae girl an' protected her against him. Goddlemighty, man, you ain't aimin' to kill me like a wolf!" The shriek of uncontrollable terror lifted into his voice once more. "I ain't ready to die. Gimme a chance, Tom. I'll change my ways. I swear I will. I'll do like you say every minute. I'll nurse Beresford. Me, I'm a fine nurse. If you'll gimme a week—jus' one more week. That ain't much to ask. So's I can git ready."
The man slipped to his knees and began to crawl toward Morse. The young man got up, his teeth set. He could not stand much of this sort of thing without collapsing himself.
"Get up," he said. "We're going over the hill there."
It took Morse five minutes to get the condemned man to his feet. The fellow's face was ashen. His knees shook.
Tom was in almost as bad a condition himself.
Beresford's high voice cut in. In his delirium he was perhaps living over again his experience with Pierre Poulette.
"Maintiens le droit. Get your man and bring him in. Tough sledding. Never mind. Go through, old fellow. Bring him in. That's what you're sent for. Hogtie him. Drag him with a rope around his neck. Get him back somehow."
The words struck Tom motionless. It was as though some voice were speaking to him through the sick man's lips. He waited.
"Righto, sir," the soldier droned on. "See what I can do, sir. Have a try at it, anyhow." And again he murmured the motto of the Mounted Police.
Tom had excused himself for what he thought it was his duty to do on the ground that it was not humanly possible to save his friend and bring West back. It came to him in a flash that the Mounted Police were becoming so potent a power for law and order because they never asked whether the job assigned them was possible. They went ahead and did it or died trying to do it. It did not matter primarily whether Beresford and he got back alive or not. If West murdered them, other red-coats would take the trail and get him.
What he, Tom Morse, had to do was to carry on. He could not choose the easy way, even though it was a desperately hard one for him. He could not make himself a judge over this murderer, with power of life and death. The thing that had been given him to do was to bring West to Faraway. He had no choice in the matter. Win or lose, he had to play the hand out as it was dealt him.
OVER A ROTTING TRAIL
Tom believed that Beresford's delirious words had condemned them both to death. He could not nurse his friend, watch West night and day, keep the camp supplied with food, and cover the hundreds of miles of bleak snow fields which stretched between them and the nearest settlement. He did not think that any one man lived who was capable of succeeding in such a task.
Yet his first feeling was of immediate relief. The horrible duty that had seemed to be laid upon him was not a duty at all. He saw his course quite simply. All he had to do was to achieve the impossible. If he failed in it, he would go down like a soldier in the day's work. He would have, anyhow, no torturings of conscience, no blight resting upon him till the day of his death.
"You're reprieved, West," he announced simply.
The desperado staggered to the sled and leaned against it faintly. His huge body swayed. The revulsion was almost too much for him.
"I—I—knowed you couldn't treat an old pardner thataway, Tom," he murmured.
Morse took the man out to a fir tree. He carried with him a blanket, a buffalo robe, and a part of the dog harness.
"Whad you aimin' to do?" asked West uneasily. He was not sure yet that he was out of the woods.
"Roll up in the blankets," ordered Morse.
The fellow looked at his grim face and did as he was told. Tom tied him to the tree, after making sure that his hands were fast behind him.
"I'll freeze here," the convict complained.
The two officers were lean and gaunt from hard work and insufficient nourishment, but West was still sleek and well padded with flesh. He had not missed a meal, and during the past weeks he had been a passenger. All the hard work, the packing at portages, the making of camp, the long, wearing days of hunting, had fallen upon the two whose prisoner he was. He could stand a bit of hardship, Tom decided.
"No such luck," he said brusquely. "And I wouldn't try to break away if I were you. I can't kill you, but I'll thrash you with the dog-whip if you make me any trouble."
Morse called Cuffy and set the dog to watch the bound man. He did not know whether the St. Bernard would do this, but he was glad to see that the leader of the train understood at once and settled down in the snow to sleep with one eye watchful of West.
Tom returned to his friend. He knew he must concentrate his efforts to keep life in the battered body of the soldier. He must nurse and feed him judiciously until the fever wore itself out.
While he was feeding Win broth, he fell asleep with the spoon in his hand. He jerkily flung back his head and opened his eyes. Cuffy still lay close to the prisoner, evidently prepared for an all-night vigil with short light naps from which the least movement would instantly arouse him.
"I'm all in. Got to get some sleep," Morse said to himself, half aloud.
He wrapped in his blankets. When his eyes opened, the sun was beating down from high in the heavens. He had slept from one day into the next. Even in his sleep he had been conscious of some sound drumming at his ears. It was the voice of West.
"You gonna sleep all day? Don't we get any grub? Have I gotta starve while you pound yore ear?"
Hurriedly Tom flung aside his wraps. He leaped to his feet, a new man, his confidence and vitality all restored.
The fire had died to ashes. He could hear the yelping of the dogs in the distance. They were on a private rabbit hunt of their own, all of them but Cuffy. The St. Bernard still lay in the snow watching West.
Beresford's delirium was gone and his fever was less. He was very weak, but Tom thought he saw a ghost of the old boyish grin flicker indomitably into his eyes. As Tom looked at the swathed and bandaged head, for the first time since the murderous attack he allowed himself to hope. The never-say-die spirit of the man and the splendid constitution built up by a clean outdoor life might pull him through yet.
"West was afraid you never were going to wake up, Tom. It worried him. You know how fond of you he is," the constable said weakly.
Morse was penitent. "Why didn't you wake me, Win? You must be dying of thirst."
"I could do with a drink," he admitted. "But you needed that sleep. Every minute of it."
Tom built up the fire and thawed snow. He gave Beresford a drink and then fed more of the broth to him. He made breakfast for the prisoner and himself.
Afterward, he took stock of their larder. It was almost empty. "Enough flour and pemmican for another mess of rubaboo. Got to restock right away or our stomachs will be flat as a buffalo bull's after a long stampede."
He spoke cheerfully, yet he and Beresford both knew a hunt for game might be unsuccessful. Rabbits would not do. He had to provide enough to feed the dogs as well as themselves. If he did not get a moose, a bear, or caribou, they would face starvation.
Tom redressed the wounds of the trooper and examined the splints on the arm to make sure they had not become disarranged during the night in the delirium of the sick man.
"Got to leave you, Win. Maybe for a day or more. I'll have plenty of wood piled handy for the fire—and broth all ready to heat. Think you can make out?"
The prospect could not have been an inviting one for the wounded man, but he nodded quite as a matter of course.
"I'll be all right. Take your time. Don't spoil your hunt worrying about me."
Yet it was with extreme reluctance Tom had made up his mind to go. He would take the dog-train with him—and West, unarmed, of course. He had to take him on Beresford's account, because he dared not leave him. But as he looked at his friend, all the supple strength stricken out of him, weak and helpless as a sick child, he felt a queer tug at the heart. What assurance had he that he would find him still alive on his return?
Beresford knew what he was thinking. He smiled, the gentle, affectionate smile of the very ill. "It's all right, old fellow. Got to buck up and carry on, you know. Look out—for West. Don't give him any show at you. Never trust him—not for a minute. Remember he's—a wolf." His weak hand gripped Tom's in farewell.
The American turned away hurriedly, not to show the tears that unexpectedly brimmed his lids. Though he wore the hard surface of the frontier, his was a sensitive soul. He was very fond of this gay, gallant youth who went out to meet adventure as though it were a lover with whom he had an appointment. They had gone through hell together, and the fires of the furnace had proved the Canadian true gold. After all, Tom was himself scarcely more than a boy in years. He cherished, deep hidden in him, the dreams and illusions that long contact with the world is likely to dispel. At New Haven and Cambridge lads of his age were larking beneath the elms and playing childish pranks on each other.
West drove the team. Tom either broke trail or followed. He came across plenty of tracks, but most of them were old ones. He recognized the spoor of deer, bear, and innumerable rabbits. Toward noon fresh caribou tracks crossed their path. The slot pointed south. Over a soft and rotting trail Morse swung round in pursuit.
They made heavy going of it. He had to break trail through slushy snow. His shoes broke through the crust and clogged with the sludgy stuff so that his feet were greatly weighted. Fatigue pressed like a load on his shoulders. The dogs and West wallowed behind.
By night probably the trail would be much better, but they dared not wait till then. The caribou would not stop to suit the convenience of the hunters. This might be the last shot in the locker. Every dragging lift of the webs carried Morse farther from camp, but food had to be found and in quantity.
It was close to dusk when Tom guessed they were getting near the herd. He tied the train to a tree and pushed on with West. Just before nightfall he sighted the herd grazing on muskeg moss. There were about a dozen in all. The wind was fortunately right.
Tom motioned to West not to follow him. On hands and knees the hunter crept forward, taking advantage of such cover as he could find. It was a slow, cold business, but he was not here for pleasure. A mistake might mean the difference between life and death for him and Win Beresford.
For a stalker to determine the precise moment when to shoot is usually a nice decision. Perhaps he can gain another dozen yards on his prey. On the other hand, by moving closer he may startle them and lose his chance. With so much at stake Tom felt for the second time in his life the palsy that goes with buck fever.
A buck flung up his head and sniffed toward the hidden danger. Tom knew the sign of startled doubt. Instantly his trembling ceased. He aimed carefully and fired. The deer dropped in its tracks. Again he fired—twice—three times. The last shot was a wild one, sent on a hundredth chance. The herd vanished in the gathering darkness.
Tom swung forward exultant, his webs swishing swiftly over the snow. He had dropped two. A second buck had fallen, risen, run fifty yards, and come to earth again. The hunter's rifle was ready in case either of the caribou sprang up. He found the first one dead, the other badly wounded. At once he put the buck out of its pain.
West came slouching out of the woods at Tom's signal. Directed by the officer, he made a fire and prepared for business. The stars were out as they dressed the meat and cooked a large steak on the coals. Afterward they hung the caribou from the limb of a spruce, drawing them high enough so that no prowling wolves could reach the game.
With the coming of night the temperature had fallen and the snow hardened. The crust held beneath their webs as they returned to the sled. West wanted to camp where the deer had been killed. He protested, with oaths, in his usual savage growl, that he was dead tired and could not travel another step.
But he did. Beneath the stars the hunters mushed twenty miles back to camp. They made much better progress by reason of the frozen trail and the good meal they had eaten.
It was daybreak when Morse sighted the camp-fire smoke. His heart leaped. Beresford must have been able to keep it alive with fuel. Therefore he had been alive an hour or two ago at most.
Dogs and men trudged into camp ready to drop with fatigue.
Beresford, from where he lay, waved a hand at Tom. "Any luck?" he asked.
"Good. I'll be ready for a steak to-morrow."
Morse looked at him anxiously. The glaze had left his eyes. He was no longer burning up with fever. Both voice and movements seemed stronger than they had been twenty-four hours earlier.
"Bully for you, Win," he answered.
A CREE RUNNER BRINGS NEWS
"Don't you worry about that lad, Jessie. He's got as many lives as a cat—and then some. I've knew him ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper."
Brad Stearns was talking. He sat in the big family room at the McRae house and puffed clouds of tobacco, smoke to the rafters.
"Meaning Mr. Beresford?" asked Jessie demurely. She was patching a pair of leather trousers for Fergus and she did not raise her eyes from the work.
"Meanin' Tom Morse," the old-timer said. "Not but what Beresford's a good lad too. Sand in his craw an' a kick like a mule in his fist. But he was brought up somewheres in the East, an' o' course he's a leetle mite less tough than Tom. No, sir. Tom'll bob up one o' these here days good as ever. Don't you worry none about that. Why, he ain't been gone but—lemme see, a week or so better'n four months. When a man's got to go to the North Pole an' back, four months—"
Beneath her long lashes the girl slanted a swift look at Brad. "That makes twice you've told me in two minutes not to worry about Mr. Morse. Do I look peaked? Am I lying awake nights thinking about him, do you think?" She held up the renewed trousers and surveyed her handiwork critically.
Brad gazed at her through narrowed lids. "I'll be doggoned if I know whether you are or you ain't. I'd bet a pair o' red-topped boots it's one of them lads. 'Course Beresford's got a red coat an' spurs that jingle an' a fine line o' talk. Tom he ain't got ary one o' the three. But if it's a man you're lookin' for, a two-fisted man who—"
A wave of mirth crossed Jessie's face like a ripple on still water. Her voice mimicked his. "Why do you want to saw off an old maid on that two-fisted man you've knew ever since he was knee-high to a grasshopper? What did he ever do to you that was so doggoned mean?"
"Now looky here, you can laugh at me all you've a mind to. All I'm sayin' is—"
"Oh, I'm not laughing at you," she interposed hurriedly with an assumption of anxiety her bubbling eyes belied. "If you could show me how to get your two-fisted man when he comes back—or even the one with the red coat and the spurs and the fine line of talk—"
"I ain't sayin' he ain't a man from the ground up too," Brad broke in. "Considerin' his opportunities he's a right hefty young fellow. But Tom Morse he—"
"That's it exactly. Tom Morse he—"
"Keep right on makin' fun o' me. Tom Morse he's a man outa ten thousand, an' I don't know as I'm coverin' enough population at that."
"And you're willing to make a squaw-man of him. Oh, Mr. Stearns!"
He looked at her severely. "You got no license to talk thataway, Jessie McRae. You're Angus McRae's daughter an' you been to Winnipeg to school. Anyways, after what Lemoine found out—"
"What did he find out? Pierre Roubideaux couldn't tell him anything about the locket and the ring. Makoye-kin said he got it from his brother who was one of a party that massacred an American outfit of trappers headed for Peace River. He doesn't know whether the picture of the woman in the locket was that of one of the women in the camp. All we've learned is that I look like a picture of a white woman found in a locket nearly twenty years ago. That doesn't take us very far, does it?"
"Well, Stokimatis may know something. When Onistah comes back with her, we'll get the facts straight."
McRae came into the room. "News, lass," he cried, and his voice rang. "A Cree runner's just down frae Northern Lights. He says the lads were picked up by some trappers near Desolation. One o' them's been badly hurt, but he's on the mend. Which yin I dinna ken. What wi' starvation an' blizzards an' battles they've had a tough time. But the word is they're doing fine noo."
"West?" asked Brad. "Did they get him?"
"They got him. Dragged him back to Desolation with a rope round his neck. Hung on to him while they were slam-bangin' through blizzards an' runnin' a race wi' death to get back before they starved. Found him up i' the Barrens somewhere, the story is. He'll be hangit at the proper time an' place. It's in the Word. 'They that take the sword shall perish with the sword.' Matthew 26:52."
Brad let out the exultant rebel yell he had learned years before in the Confederate army. "What'd I tell you about that boy? Ain't I knowed him since he was a li'l' bit of a tad? He's a go-getter, Tom is. Y'betcha!"
Jessie's heart was singing too, but she could not forbear a friendly gibe at him. "I suppose Win Beresford wasn't there at all. He hadn't a thing to do with it, had he?"
The old cowpuncher raised a protesting hand. "I ain't said a word against him. Now have I, McRae? Nothin' a-tall. All I done said was that I been tellin' everybody Tom would sure enough bring back Bully West with him."
The girl laughed. "You're daffy about that boy you brought up by hand. I'll not argue with you."
"They're both good lads," the Scotchman summed up, and passed to his second bit of news. "Onistah and Stokimatis are in frae the Blackfoot country. They stoppit at the store, but they'll be alang presently. I had a word wi' Onistah. We'll wait for him here."
"Did he say what he'd found out?" Jessie cried.
"Only that he had brought back the truth. That'll be the lad knockin' at the door."
Jessie opened, to let in Onistah and his mother. Stokimatis and the girl gravitated into each other's arms, as is the way with women who are fond of each other. The Indian is stolid, but Jessie had the habit of impetuosity, of letting her feelings sweep her into demonstration. Even the native women she loved were not proof against it.
McRae questioned Stokimatis.
Without waste of words the mother of Onistah told the story she had traveled hundreds of miles to tell.
Sleeping Dawn was not the child of her sister. When the attack had been made on the white trappers bound for Peace River, the mother of a baby had slipped the infant under an iron kettle. After the massacre her sister had found the wailing little atom of humanity. The Indian woman had recently lost her own child. She hid the babe and afterward was permitted to adopt it. When a few months later she died of smallpox, Stokimatis had inherited the care of the little one. She had named it Sleeping Dawn. Later, when the famine year came, she had sold the child to Angus McRae.
That was all she knew. But it was enough for Jessie. She did not know who her parents had been. She never would know, beyond the fact that they were Americans and that her mother had been a beautiful girl whose eyes laughed and danced. But this knowledge made a tremendous difference to her. She belonged to the ruling race and not to the metis, just as much as Win Beresford and Tom Morse did.
She tried to hide her joy, was indeed ashamed of it. For any expression of it seemed like a reproach to Matapi-Koma and Onistah and Stokimatis, to her brother Fergus and in a sense even to her father. None the less her blood beat fast. What she had just found out meant that she could aspire to the civilization of the whites, that she had before her an outlook, was not to be hampered by the limitations imposed upon her by race.
The heart in the girl sang a song of sunshine dancing on grass, of meadowlarks flinging out their carefree notes of joy. Through it like a golden thread ran for a motif little melodies that had to do with a man who had staggered into Fort Desolation out of the frozen North, sick and starved and perhaps wounded, but still indomitably captain of his soul.
"MALBROUCK S'EN VA-T-EN GUERRE"
Inspector MacLean was present in person when the two man-hunters of the North-West Mounted returned to Faraway. Their reception was in the nature of a pageant. Gayly dressed voyageurs and trappers, singing old river songs that had been handed down to them from their fathers, unharnessed the dogs and dragged the cariole into town. In it sat Beresford, still unfit for long and heavy mushing. Beside it slouched West, head down, hands tied behind his back, the eyes from the matted face sending sidling messages of hate at the capering crowd. At his heels moved Morse, grim and tireless, an unromantic figure of dominant efficiency.
Long before the worn travelers and their escort reached the village, Jessie could hear the gay lilt of the chantey that heralded their coming:
"Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre, Mironton-ton-ton, mirontaine."
The girl hummed it herself, heart athrob with excitement. She found herself joining in the cheer of welcome that rose joyously when the cavalcade drew into sight. In her cheeks fluttered eager flags of greeting. Tears brimmed the soft eyes, so that she could hardly distinguish Tom Morse and Win Beresford, the one lean and gaunt and grim, the other pale and hollow-eyed from illness, but scattering smiles of largesse. For her heart was crying, in a paraphrase of the great parable, "He was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found."
Beresford caught sight of the Inspector's face and chuckled like a schoolboy caught in mischief. This gay procession, with its half-breeds in tri-colored woolen coats, its gay-plumed voyageurs suggesting gallant troubadours of old in slashed belts and tassels, was not quite the sort of return to set Inspector MacLean cheering. Externally, at least, he was a piece of military machinery. A trooper did his work, and that ended it. In the North-West Mounted it was not necessary to make a gala day of it because a constable brought in his man. If he didn't bring him in—well, that would be another and a sadder story for the officer who fell down on the assignment.
As soon as Beresford and Morse had disposed of their prisoner and shaken off their exuberant friends, they reported to the Inspector. He sat at a desk and listened dryly to their story. Not till they had finished did he make any comment.
"You'll have a week's furlough to recuperate, Constable Beresford. After that report to the Writing-on-Stone detachment for orders. Here's a voucher for your pay, Special Constable Morse. I'll say to you both that it was a difficult job well done." He hesitated a moment, then proceeded to free his mind. "As for this Roman triumph business—victory procession with prisoners chained to your chariot wheels—quite unnecessary, I call it."
Beresford explained, smilingly. "We really couldn't help it, sir. They were bound to make a Roman holiday out of us whether we wanted to or not. You know how excitable the French are. Had to have their little frolic out of it."
"Not the way the Mounted does business. You know that, Beresford. We don't want any fuss and feathers—any fol-de-rol—this mironton-ton-ton stuff. Damn it, sir, you liked it. I could see you eat it up. D'you s'pose I haven't eyes in my head?"
The veneer of sobriety Beresford imposed on his countenance refused to stay put.
MacLean fumed on. "Hmp! Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre, eh? Very pretty. Very romantic, no doubt. But damned sentimental tommyrot, just the same."
"Yes, sir," agreed the constable, barking into a cough just in time to cut off a laugh.
"Get out!" ordered the Inspector, and there was the glimmer of a friendly smile in his own eyes. "And I'll expect you both to dine with me to-night. Six o'clock sharp. I'll hear that wonderful story in more detail. And take care of yourself, Beresford. You don't look strong yet. I'll make that week two or three if necessary."
"Thank you, sir."
"Hmp! Don't thank me. Earned it, didn't you? What are you hanging around for? Get out!"
Constable Beresford had his revenge. As he passed the window, Inspector MacLean heard him singing. The words that drifted to the commissioned office! were familiar.
"Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre, Mironton-ton-ton, mirontaine."
MacLean smiled at the irrepressible youngster. Like most people, he responded to the charm of Winthrop Beresford. He could forgive him a touch of debonair impudence if necessary.
It happened that his heart was just now very warm toward both these young fellows. They had come through hell and had upheld the best traditions of the Force. Between the lines of the story they had told he gathered that they had shaved the edge of disaster a dozen times. But they had stuck to their guns like soldiers. They had fought it out week after week, hanging to their man with bulldog pluck. And when at last they were found almost starving in camp, they were dividing their last rabbit with the fellow they were bringing out to be hanged.
The Inspector walked to the window and looked down the street after them. His lips moved, but no sound came from them. The rhythmic motion of them might have suggested, if there had been anybody present to observe, that his mind was running on the old river song.
"Malbrouck s'en va-t-en guerre, Mironton-ton-ton, mirontaine."
SENSE AND NONSENSE
Beresford speaking, to an audience of one, who listened with soft dark eyes aglow and sparkling.
"He's the best scout ever came over the border, Jessie. Trusty as steel, stands the gaff without whining, backs his friends to the limit, and plays the game out till the last card's dealt and the last trick lost. Tom Morse is a man in fifty thousand."
"I know another," she murmured. "Every word you've said is true for him too."
"He's a wonder, that other." admitted the soldier dryly. "But we're talking about Tom now. I tell you that iron man dragged West and me out of the Barrens by the scruff of our necks. Wouldn't give up. Wouldn't quit. The yellow in West came out half a dozen times. When the ten-day blizzard caught us, he lay down and yelped like a cur. I wouldn't have given a plugged six-pence for our chances. But Tom went out into it, during a little lull, and brought back with him a timber wolf. How he found it, how he killed it, Heaven alone knows. He was coated with ice from head to foot. That wolf kept us and the dogs alive for a week. Each day, when the howling of the blizzard died down a bit, Tom made West go down with him to the creek and get wood. It must have been a terrible hour. They'd come back so done up, so frozen, they could hardly stagger in with their jags of pine for the fire. I never heard the man complain—not once. He stood up to it the way Tom Sayers used to."
The girl felt a warm current of life prickling swiftly through her. "I love to hear you talk so generously of him."
"Of my rival?" he said, smiling. "How else can I talk? The scoundrel has been heaping on me those coals of fire we read about. I haven't told you half of it—how he nursed me like a woman and looked after me so that I wouldn't take cold, how he used to tuck me up in the sled with a hot stone at my feet and make short days' runs in order not to wear out my strength. By Jove, it was a deucedly unfair advantage he took of me."
"Is he your rival?" she asked.
"How demure Miss McRae is," he commented. "Observe those long eyelashes flutter down to the soft cheeks."
"In what book did you read that?" she wanted to know.
"In that book of suffering known as experience," he sighed, eyes dancing.
"If you're trying to tell me that you're in love with some girl—"
"Haven't I been trying to tell you for a year?"
Her eyes flashed a challenge at him. "Take care, sir. First thing you know you'll be on thin ice. You might break through."
"And if I did—"
"Of course I'd snap you up before you could bat an eye. Is there a girl living that wouldn't? And I'm almost an old maid. Don't forget that. I'm to gather rosebuds while I may, because time's flying so fast, some poet says."
"Time stands still for you, my dear," he bowed, with a gay imitation of the grand manner.
"Thank you." Her smile mocked him. She had flirted a good deal with this young man and understood him very well. He had no intention whatever of giving up the gay hazards of life for any adventure so enduring as matrimony. Moreover, he knew she knew it. "But let's stick to the subject. While you're proposing—"
"How you help a fellow along!" he laughed. "Am I proposing?"
"Of course you are. But I haven't found out yet whether it's for yourself or Mr. Morse."
"A good suggestion—novel, too. For us both, let's say. You take your choice." He flung out a hand in a gay debonair gesture.
"You've told his merits, but I don't think I ever heard yours mentioned," she countered. "If you'd recite them, please."
"It's a subject I can do only slight justice." He bowed again. "Sergeant Beresford, at your service, of the North-West Mounted."
"Sergeant! Since when?"
"Since yesterday. Promoted for meritorious conduct in the line of duty. My pay is increased to one dollar and a quarter a day. In case happily your choice falls on me, don't squander it on silks and satins, on trips to Paris and London—"
"If I choose you, it won't be for your wealth," she assured him.
"Reassured, fair lady. I proceed with the inventory of Sergeant Beresford's equipment as a future husband. Fond, but, alas! fickle. A family black sheep, or if not black, at least striped. Likely not to plague you long, if he's sent on many more jobs like the last. Said to be good-tempered, but not docile. Kind, as men go, but a ne'er-do-well, a prodigal, a waster. Something whispers in my ear that he'll make a better friend than a husband."
"A twin fairy is whispering the same in my ear," the girl nodded. "At least a better friend to Jessie McRae. But I think he has a poor advocate in you. The description is not a flattering one. I don't even recognize the portrait."
"But Tom Morse—"
"Exactly, Tom Morse. Haven't you rather taken the poor fellow for granted?" She felt an unexpected blush burn into her cheek. It stained the soft flesh to her throat. For she was discovering that the nonsense begun so lightly was embarrassing. She did not want to talk about the feelings of Tom Morse toward her. "It's all very well to joke, but—"
"Shall I ask him?" he teased.
She flew into a mild near-panic. "If you dare, Win Beresford!" The flash in her eyes was no longer mirth. "We'll talk about something else. I don't think it's very nice of us to—to—"
"Tom retired from conversational circulation," he announced. "Shall we talk of cats or kings?"
"Tell me your plans, now you've been promoted."
"Plans? Better men make 'em. I touch my hat, say, 'Yes, sir,' and help work 'em out. Coming back to Tom for a minute, have you heard that the Colonel has written him a letter of thanks for the distinguished service rendered by him to the Mounted and suggesting that a permanent place of importance can be found for him on the Force if he'll take it?"
"No. Did he? Isn't that just fine?" The soft glow had danced into her eyes again. "He won't take it, will he?"
"What do you think?" His eyes challenged hers coolly. He was willing, if he could, to discover whether Jessie was in love with his friend.
"Oh, I don't think he should," she said quickly. "He has a good business. It's getting better all the time. He's a coming man. And of course he'd get hard jobs in the Mounted, the way you do."
"That's a compliment, if it's true," he grinned.
"I dare say, but that doesn't make it any safer."
"They couldn't give him a harder one than you did when you sent him into the Barrens to bring back West." His eyes, touched with humor and yet disconcertingly intent on information, were fixed steadily on hers.
The girl's cheeks flew color signals. "Why do you say that? I didn't ask him to go. He volunteered."
"Wasn't it because you wanted him to?"
"I should think you'd be the last man to say that," she protested indignantly. "He was your friend, and he didn't want you to run so great a risk alone."
"Then you didn't want him to go?"
"If I did, it was for you. Maybe he blames me for it, but I don't see how you can. You've just finished telling me he saved your life a dozen times."
"Did I say I was blaming you?" His warm, affectionate smile begged pardon if he had given offense. "I was just trying to get it straight. You wanted him to go that time, but you wouldn't want him to go again. Is that it?"
"I wouldn't want either of you to go again. What are you driving at, Win Beresford?"
"Oh, nothing!" He laughed. "But if you think Tom's too good to waste on the Mounted, you'd better tell him so while there's still time. He'll make up his mind within a day or two."
"I don't see him. He never comes here."
"I wonder why."
Jessie sometimes wondered why herself.
THE IMPERATIVE URGE
The reason why Tom did not go to see Jessie was that he longed to do so in every fiber of his being. His mind was never freed for a moment from the routine of the day's work that it did not automatically turn toward her. If he saw a woman coming down the street with the free light step only one person in Faraway possessed, his heart would begin to beat faster. In short, he suffered that torment known as being in love.
He dared not go to see her for fear she might discover it. She was the sweetheart of his friend. It was as natural as the light of day that she turn to Win Beresford with the gift of her love. Nobody like him had ever come into her life. His gay courage, his debonair grace, the good manners of that outer world such a girl must crave, the affectionate touch of friendliness in his smile: how could any woman on this forsaken edge of the Arctic resist them?
She could not, of course, let alone one so full of the passionate longing for life as Jessie McRae.
If Tom could have looked on her unmoved, if he could have subdued or concealed the ardent fire inside him, he would have gone to call occasionally as though casually. But he could not trust himself. He was like a volcano ready for eruption. Already he was arranging with his uncle to put a subordinate here and let him return to Benton. Until that could be accomplished, he tried to see her as little as possible.
But Jessie was a child of the imperative urge. She told herself fifty times that it was none of her business if he did accept the offer of a place in the North-West Mounted. He could do as he pleased. Why should she interfere? And yet—and yet—
She found a shadow of excuse for herself in the fact that it had been through her that he had offered himself as a special constable. He might think she wanted him to enlist permanently. So many girls were foolish about the red coats of soldiers. She had noticed that among her school-girl friends at Winnipeg. If she had any influence with him at all, she did not want it thrown on that side of the scale.
But of course he probably did not care what she thought. Very likely it was her vanity that whispered to her he had gone North with Win Beresford partly to please her. Still, since she was his friend, ought she not to just drop an offhand hint that he was a more useful citizen where he was than in the Mounted? He couldn't very well resent that, could he? Or think her officious? Or forward?
She contrived little plans to meet him when he would be alone and she could talk with him, but she rejected these because she was afraid he would see through them. It had become of first importance to her that Tom Morse should not think she had any but a superficial interest in him.
When at last she did meet him, it was by pure chance. Dusk was falling. She was passing the yard where his storehouse was. He wheeled out and came on her plumply face to face. Both were taken by surprise completely. Out of it neither could emerge instantly with casual words of greeting.
Jessie felt her pulses throb. A queer consternation paralyzed the faculties that ought to have come alertly to her rescue. She stood, awkwardly silent, in a shy panic to her pulsing finger-tips. Later she would flog herself scornfully for her folly, but this did not help in the least now.
"I—I was just going to Mr. Whaley's with a little dress Mother made for the baby," she said at last.
"It's a nice baby," was the best he could do.
"Yes. It's funny. You know Mr. Whaley didn't care anything about it before—while it was very little. But now he thinks it's wonderful. I'm so glad he does."
She was beginning to get hold of herself, to emerge from the emotional crisis into which this meeting had plunged her. It had come to her consciousness that he was as perturbed as she, and a discovery of this nature always brings a woman composure.
"He treats his wife a lot better too."
"There was room for it," he said dryly.
"She's a nice little thing."
Conversation, which had been momentarily brisk, threatened to die out for lack of fuel. Anything was better than significant silences in which she could almost hear the hammering of her heart.
"Win Beresford told me about the offer you had to go into the Mounted," she said, plunging.
"Will you accept?"
He looked at her, surprised. "Didn't Win tell you? I said right away I couldn't accept. He knew that."
"Oh! I don't believe he did tell me. Perhaps you hadn't decided then." Privately she was determining to settle some day with Winthrop Beresford for leading her into this. He had purposely kept silent, she knew now, in the hope that she would talk to Tom Morse about it. "But I'm glad you've decided against going in."
"It's dangerous, and I don't think it has much future."
"Win likes it."
"Yes, Win does. He'll get a commission one of these days."
"He deserves one. I—I hope you'll both be very happy."
He was walking beside her. Quickly her glance flashed up at him. Was that the reason he had held himself so aloof from her?
"I think we shall, very likely, if you mean Win and I. He's always happy, isn't he? And I try to be. I'm sorry he's leaving this part of the country. Writing-on-Stone is a long way from here. He may never get back. I'll miss him a good deal. Of course you will too."
This was plain enough, but Tom could not accept it at face value. Perhaps she meant that she would miss him until Win got ready to send for her. An idea lodged firmly in the mind cannot be ejected at an instant's notice.
"Yes, I'll miss him. He's a splendid fellow. I've never met one like him, so staunch and cheerful and game. Sometime I'd like to tell you about that trip we took. You'd be proud of him."
"I'm sure all his friends are," she said, smiling a queer little smile that was lost in the darkness.
"He was a very sick man, in a great deal of pain, and we had a rather dreadful time of it. Of course it hit him far harder than it did either West or me. But never a whimper out of him from first to last. Always cheerful, always hopeful, with a little joke or a snatch of a song, even when it looked as though we couldn't go on another day. He's one out of ten thousand."
"I heard him say that about another man—only I think he said one in fifty thousand," she made comment, almost in a murmur.
"Any girl would be lucky to have such a man for a husband," he added fatuously.
"Yes. I hope he'll find some nice one who will appreciate him."
This left no room for misunderstanding. Tom's brain whirled. "You—you and he haven't had any—quarrel?"
"No. What made you think so?"
"I don't know. I suppose I'm an idiot. But I thought—"
He stopped. She took up his unfinished sentence.
"You thought wrong."