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North of Fifty-Three
by Bertrand W. Sinclair
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"Why, you're a regular scrapper," he smiled. "Now, I'm sure you didn't cuff Bush that way."

Hazel jerked loose from his grip in a perfect fury, using at the same time the weapons nature gave her according to her strength, whereby Mr. Perkins suffered sundry small bruises, which were as nothing to the bruises his conceit suffered. For, being free of him, Hazel stood her ground long enough to tell him that he was a cad, a coward, an ill-bred nincompoop, and other epithets grievous to masculine vanity. With that she fled incontinently down the hill, furious, shamed almost to tears, and wishing fervently that she had the muscle of a man to requite the insult as it deserved. To cap the climax, Mrs. Briggs, who had seen the two depart, observed her return alone, and, with a curious look, asked jokingly:

"Did you lose the young man in the timber?"

And Hazel, being keyed to a fearful pitch, unwisely snapped back:

"I hope so."

Which caused Mrs. Briggs' gaze to follow her wonderingly as she went hastily to her own room.

Like other mean souls of similar pattern, it suited Mr. Perkins to seek revenge in the only way possible—by confidentially relating to divers individuals during that evening the Granville episode in the new teacher's career. At least, Hazel guessed he must have told the tale of that ambiguously worded bequest and the subsequent gossip, for as early as the next day she caught certain of Jim Briggs' boarders looking at her with an interest they had not heretofore displayed—or, rather, it should be said, with a different sort of interest. They were discussing her. She could not know it positively, but she felt it.

The feeling grew to certainty after Perkins' departure that day. There was a different atmosphere. Probably, she reflected, he had thrown in a few embellishments of his own for good measure. She felt a tigerish impulse to choke him. But she was proud, and she carried her head in the air, and, in effect, told Cariboo Meadows to believe as it pleased and act as it pleased. They could do no more than cut her and cause her to lose her school. She managed to keep up an air of cool indifference that gave no hint of the despairing protest that surged close to the surface. Individually and collectively, she reiterated to herself, she despised men. Her resentment had not yet extended to the women of Cariboo Meadows. They were mostly too busy with their work to be much in the foreground. She did observe, or thought she observed, a certain coolness in Mrs. Briggs' manner—a sort of suspended judgment.

In the meantime, she labored diligently at her appointed task of drilling knowledge into the heads of a dozen youngsters. From nine until three-thirty she had that to occupy her mind to the exclusion of more troublesome things. When school work for the day ended, she went to her room, or sat on the porch, or took solitary rambles in the immediate vicinity, avoiding the male contingent as she would have avoided contagious disease. Never, never, she vowed, would she trust another man as far as she could throw him.

The first Saturday after the Perkins incident, Hazel went for a tramp in the afternoon. She avoided the little hill close at hand. It left a bad taste in her mouth to look at the spot. This was foolish, and she realized that it was foolish, but she could not help the feeling—the insult was still too fresh in her mind. So she skirted its base and ranged farther afield. The few walks she had taken had lulled all sense of uneasiness in venturing into the infolding forest. She felt that those shadowy woods were less sinister than man. And since she had always kept her sense of direction and come straight to the Meadows whenever she went abroad, she had no fear or thought of losing her way.

A mile or so distant a bare spot high on a wooded ridge struck her as a likely place to get an unobstructed view. To reach some height and sit in peace, staring out over far-spreading vistas, contented her. She could put away the unpleasantness of the immediate past, discount the possible sordidness of the future, and lose herself in dreams.

To reach her objective point, she crossed a long stretch of rolling land, well timbered, dense in parts with thickets of berry bushes. Midway in this she came upon a little brook, purring a monotone as it crawled over pebbled reaches and bathed the tangled roots of trees along its brink. By this she sat a while. Then she idled along, coming after considerable difficulty to abruptly rising ground. Though in the midst of timber the sun failed to penetrate, she could always see it through the branches and so gauge her line of travel. On the hillside it was easier, for the forest thinned out. Eventually she gained a considerable height, and while she failed to reach the opening seen from the Meadows, she found another that served as well. The sun warmed it, and the sun rays were pleasant to bask in, for autumn drew close, and there was a coolness in the shade even at noon. She could not see the town, but she could mark the low hills behind it. At any rate, she knew where it lay, and the way back.

So she thought. But the short afternoon fled, and, warned by the low dip of the sun, she left her nook on the hillside to make her way home. Though it was near sundown, she felt no particular concern. The long northern twilight gave her ample time to cover the distance.

But once down on the rolling land, among the close-ranked trees, she began to experience a difficulty that had not hitherto troubled her. With the sun hanging low, she lost her absolute certainty of east and west, north and south. The forest seemed suddenly to grow confusingly dim and gloomier, almost menacing in its uncanny evening silence. The birds were hushed, and the wind.

She blundered on, not admitting to herself the possibility of being unable to find Cariboo Meadows. As best she could, and to the best of her belief, she held in a straight line for the town. But she walked far enough to have overrun it, and was yet upon unfamiliar ground. The twilight deepened. The sky above showed turquoise blue between the tall tree-tops, but the woods themselves grew blurred, dusky at a little distance ahead. Even to a seasoned woodsman, twilight in a timbered country that he does not know brings confusion; uncertainty leads him far wide of his mark. Hazel, all unused to woods travel, hurried the more, uneasy with the growing conviction that she had gone astray.

The shadows deepened until she tripped over roots and stones, and snagged her hair and clothing on branches she could not see in time to fend off. As a last resort, she turned straight for the light patch still showing in the northwest, hoping thus to cross the wagon road that ran from Soda Creek to the Meadows—it lay west, and she had gone northeast from town. And as she hurried, a fear began to tug at her that she had passed the Meadows unknowingly. If she could only cross a trail—trails always led somewhere, and she was going it blind. The immensity of the unpeopled areas she had been looking out over for a week appalled her.

Presently it was dark, and darkness in the woods is the darkness of the pit itself. She found a fallen tree, and climbed on it to rest and think. Night in gloomy places brings an eerie feeling sometimes to the bravest—dormant sense impressions, running back to the cave age and beyond, become active, harry the mind with subtle, unreasoning qualms—and she was a girl, brave enough, but out of the only environment she knew how to grapple with. All the fearsome tales of forest beasts she had ever heard rose up to harass her. She had not lifted up her voice while it was light because she was not the timid soul that cries in the face of a threatened danger. Also because she would not then admit the possibility of getting lost. And now she was afraid to call. She huddled on the log, shuddering with the growing chill of the night air, partly with dread of the long, black night itself that walled her in. She had no matches to light a fire.

After what seemed an age, she fancied she saw a gleam far distant in the timber. She watched the spot fixedly, and thought she saw the faint reflection of a light. That heartened her. She advanced toward it, hoping that it might be the gleam of a ranch window. Her progress was slow. She blundered over the litter of a forest floor, tripping over unseen obstacles. But ten minutes established beyond peradventure the fact that it was indeed a light. Whether a house light or the reflection of a camp fire she was not woodwise enough to tell. But a fire must mean human beings of one sort or another, and thereby a means to reach home.

She kept on. The wavering gleam came from behind a thicket—an open fire, she saw at length. Beyond the fire she heard a horse sneeze. Within a few yards of the thicket through which wavered the yellow gleam she halted, smitten with a sudden panic. This endured but a few seconds. All that she knew or had been told of frontier men reassured her. She had found them to a man courteous, awkwardly considerate. And she could not wander about all night.

She moved cautiously, however, to the edge of the thicket, to a point where she could see the fire. A man sat humped over the glowing embers, whereon sizzled a piece of meat. His head was bent forward, as if he were listening. Suddenly he looked up, and she gasped—for the firelight showed the features of Roaring Bill Wagstaff.

She was afraid of him. Why she did not know nor stop to reason. But her fear of him was greater than her fear of the pitch-black night and the unknown dangers of the forest. She turned to retreat. In the same instant Roaring Bill reached to his rifle and stood up.

"Hold on there!" he said coolly. "You've had a look at me—I want a look at you, old feller, whoever you are. Come on—show yourself."

He stepped sidewise out of the light as he spoke. Hazel started to run. The crack of a branch under foot betrayed her, and he closed in before she took three steps. He caught her rudely by the arm, and yanked her bodily into the firelight.

"Well—for the—love of—Mike!"

Wagstaff drawled the exclamation out in a rising crescendo of astonishment. Then he laid his gun down across a roll of bedding, and stood looking at her in speechless wonder.



CHAPTER VII

A DIFFERENT SORT OF MAN

"For the love of Mike!" Roaring Bill said again. "What are you doing wandering around in the woods at night? Good Lord! Your teeth are chattering. Sit down here and get warm. It is sort of chilly."

Even in her fear, born of the night, the circumstances, and partly of the man, Hazel noticed that his speech was of a different order from that to which she had been listening the past ten days. His enunciation was perfect. He dropped no word endings, nor slurred his syllables. And cast in so odd a mold is the mind of civilized woman that the small matter of a little refinement of speech put Hazel Weir more at her ease than a volume of explanation or protest on his part would have done. She had pictured him a ruffian in thought, speech, and deed. His language cleared him on one count, and she observed that almost his first thought was for her comfort, albeit he made no sort of apology for handling her so roughly in the gloom beyond the fire.

"I got lost," she explained, growing suddenly calm. "I was out walking, and lost my way."

"Easy thing to do when you don't know timber," Bill remarked. "And in consequence you haven't had any supper; you've been scared almost to death—and probably all of Cariboo Meadows is out looking for you. Well, you've had an adventure. That's worth something. Better eat a bite, and you'll feel better."

He turned over the piece of meat on the coals while he spoke. Hazel saw that it lay on two green sticks, like a steak on a gridiron. It was quite simple, but she would never have thought of that. The meat exhaled savory odors. Also, the warmth of the fire seemed good. But—

"I'd rather be home," she confessed.

"Sure! I guess you would—naturally. I'll see that you get there, though it won't be easy. It's no snap to travel these woods in the dark. You couldn't have been so far from the Meadows. How did it come you didn't yell once in a while?"

"I didn't think it was necessary," Hazel admitted, "until it began to get dark. And then I didn't like to."

"You got afraid," Roaring Bill supplied. "Well, it does sound creepy to holler in the timber after night. I know how that goes. I've made noises after night that scared myself."

He dug some utensils out of his pack layout—two plates, knife, fork, and spoons, and laid them by the fire. Opposite the meat a pot of water bubbled. Roaring Bill produced a small tin bucket, black with the smoke of many an open fire, and a package, and made coffee. Then he spread a canvas sheet, and laid on that bread, butter, salt, a jar of preserved fruit.

"How far is it to Cariboo Meadows?" Hazel asked.

Bill looked up from his supper preparations.

"You've got me," he returned carelessly. "Probably four or five miles. I'm not positive; I've been running in circles myself this afternoon."

"Good heavens!" Hazel exclaimed. "But you know the way?"

"Like a book—in the daytime," he replied. "But night in the timber is another story, as you've just been finding out for yourself."

"I thought men accustomed to the wilderness could always find their way about, day or night," Hazel observed tartly.

"They can—in stories," Bill answered dryly.

He resumed his arranging of the food while she digested this. Presently he sat down beside the fire, and while he turned the meat with a forked stick, came back to the subject again.

"You see, I'm away off any trail here," he said, "and it's all woods, with only a little patch of open here and there. It's pure accident I happen to be here at all; accident which comes of unadulterated cussedness on the part of one of my horses. I left the Meadows at noon, and Nigger—that's this confounded cayuse of mine—he had to get scared and take to the brush. He got plumb away from me, and I had to track him. I didn't come up with him till dusk, and then the first good place I struck, which was here, I made camp. I was all for catching that horse, so I didn't pay much attention to where I was going. Didn't need to, because I know the country well enough to get anywhere in daylight, and I'm fixed to camp wherever night overtakes me. So I'm not dead sure of my ground. But you don't need to worry on that account. I'll get you home all right. Only it'll be mean traveling—and slow—unless we happen to bump into some of those fellows out looking for you. They'd surely start out when you didn't come home at dusk; they know it isn't any joke for a girl to get lost in these woods. I've known men to get badly turned round right in this same country. Well, sit up and eat a bite."

She had to be satisfied with his assurance that he would see her to Cariboo Meadows. And, accepting the situation with what philosophy she could command, Hazel proceeded to fall to—and soon discovered herself relishing the food more than any meal she had eaten for a long time. Hunger is the king of appetizers, and food cooked in the open has a flavor of its own which no aproned chef can duplicate. Roaring Bill put half the piece of meat on her plate, sliced bread for her, and set the butter handy. Also, he poured her a cup of coffee. He had a small sack of sugar, and his pack boxes yielded condensed milk.

"Maybe you'd rather have tea," he said. "I didn't think to ask you. Most Canadians don't drink anything else."

"No, thanks. I like coffee," Hazel replied.

"You're not a true-blue Canuck, then," Bill observed.

"Indeed, I am," she declared. "Aren't you a Canadian?"

"Well, I don't know that the mere accident of birth in come particular locality makes any difference," he answered. "But I'm a lot shy of being a Canadian, though I've been in this country a long time. I was born in Chicago, the smokiest, windiest old burg in the United States."

"It's a big place, isn't it?" Hazel kept the conversation going. "I don't know any of the American cities, but I have a girl friend working in a Chicago office."

"Yes, it's big—big and noisy and dirty, and full of wrecks—human derelicts in an industrial Sargasso Sea—like all big cities the world over. I don't like 'em."

Wagstaff spoke casually, as much to himself as to her, and he did not pursue the subject, but began his meal.

"What sort of meat is this?" Hazel asked after a few minutes of silence. It was fine-grained and of a rich flavor strange to her mouth. She liked it, but it was neither beef, pork, nor mutton, nor any meat she knew.

"Venison. Didn't you ever eat any before?" he smiled.

"Never tasted it," she answered. "Isn't it nice? No, I've read of hunters cooking venison over an open fire, but this is my first taste. Indeed, I've never seen a real camp fire before."

"Lord—what a lot you've missed!" There was real pity in his tone. "I killed that deer to-day. In fact, the little circus I had with Mr. Buck was what started Nigger off into the brush. Have some more coffee."

He refilled her tin cup, and devoted himself to his food. Before long they had satisfied their hunger. Bill laid a few dry sticks on the fire. The flames laid hold of them and shot up in bright, wavering tongues. It seemed to Hazel that she had stepped utterly out of her world. Cariboo Meadows, the schoolhouse, and her classes seemed remote. She found herself wishing she were a man, so that she could fare into the wilds with horses and a gun in this capable man fashion, where routine went by the board and the unexpected hovered always close at hand. She looked up suddenly, to find him regarding her with a whimsical smile.

"In a few minutes," said he, "I'll pack up and try to deliver you as per contract. Meantime, I'm going to smoke."

He did not ask her permission, but filled his pipe and lighted it with a coal. And for the succeeding fifteen minutes Roaring Bill Wagstaff sat staring into the dancing blaze. Once or twice he glanced at her, and when he did the same whimsical smile would flit across his face. Hazel watched him uneasily after a time. He seemed to have forgotten her. His pipe died, and he sat holding it in his hand. She was uneasy, but not afraid. There was nothing about him or his actions to make her fear. On the contrary, Roaring Bill at close quarters inspired confidence. Why she could not and did not attempt to determine, psychological analysis being rather out of her line.

Physically, however, Roaring Bill measured up to a high standard. He was young, probably twenty-seven or thereabouts. There was power—plenty of it—in the wide shoulders and deep chest of him, with arms in proportion. His hands, while smooth on the backs and well cared for, showed when he exposed the palms the callouses of ax handling. And his face was likable, she decided, full of character, intensely masculine. In her heart every woman despises any hint of the effeminate in man. Even though she may decry what she is pleased to term the brute in man, whenever he discards the dominant, overmastering characteristics of the male she will have none of him. Miss Hazel Weir was no exception to her sex.

Consciously or otherwise she took stock of Bill Wagstaff. She knew him to be in bad odor with Cariboo Meadows for some unknown reason. She had seen him fight in the street, knock a man unconscious with his fists. According to her conceptions of behavior that was brutal and vulgar. Drinking came under the same head, and she had Jim Briggs' word that Bill Wagstaff not only got drunk, but was a "holy terror" when in that condition. Yet she could not quite associate the twin traits of brutality and vulgarity with the man sitting close by with that thoughtful look on his face. His speech stamped him as a man of education; every line of him showed breeding in all that the word implies.

Nevertheless, he was "tough." And she had gathered enough of the West's wide liberality of view in regard to personal conduct to know that Roaring Bill Wagstaff must be a hard citizen indeed to be practically ostracized in a place like Cariboo Meadows. She wondered what Cariboo Meadows would say if it could see her sitting by Bill Wagstaff's fire at nine in the evening in the heart of the woods. What would they say when he piloted her home?

In the midst of her reflections Roaring Bill got up.

"Well, we'll make a move," he said, and disappeared abruptly into the dark.

She heard him moving around at some distance. Presently he was back, leading three horses. One he saddled. The other two he rigged with his pack outfit, storing his varied belongings in two pair of kyaks, and loading kyaks and bedding on the horses with a deft speed that bespoke long practice. He was too busy to talk, and Hazel sat beside the fire, watching in silence. When he had tucked up the last rope end, he turned to her.

"There," he said; "we're ready to hit the trail. Can you ride?"

"I don't know," Hazel answered dubiously. "I never have ridden a horse."

"My, my!" he smiled. "Your education has been sadly neglected—and you a schoolma'am, too!"

"My walking education hasn't been neglected," Hazel retorted. "I don't need to ride, thank you."

"Yes, and stub your toe and fall down every ten feet," Bill observed. "No, Miss Weir, your first lesson in horsemanship is now due—if you aren't afraid of horses."

"I'm not afraid of horses at all," Hazel declared. "But I don't think it's a very good place to take riding lessons. I can just as well walk, for I'm not in the least afraid." And then she added as an afterthought: "How do you happen to know my name?"

"In the same way that you know mine," Bill replied, "even if you haven't mentioned it yet. Lord bless you, do you suppose Cariboo Meadows could import a lady school-teacher from the civilized East without everybody in fifty miles knowing who she was, and where she came from, and what she looked like? You furnished them a subject for conversation and speculation—the same as I do when I drop in there and whoop it up for a while. I guess you don't realize what old granny gossips we wild Westerners are. Especially where girls are concerned."

Hazel stiffened a trifle. She did not like the idea of Cariboo Meadows discussing her with such freedom. She was becoming sensitive on that subject—since the coming and going of Mr. Howard Perkins, for she felt that they were considering her from an angle that she did not relish. She wondered also if Roaring Bill Wagstaff had heard that gossip. And if he had— At any rate, she could not accuse him of being impertinent or curious in so far as she was concerned. After the first look and exclamation of amazement he had taken her as a matter of course. If anything, his personal attitude was tinctured with indifference.

"Well," said he, "we won't argue the point."

He disappeared into the dark again. This time he came back with the crown of his hat full of water, which he sprinkled over the dwindling fire. As the red glow of the embers faded in a sputter of steam and ashes, Hazel realized more profoundly the blackness of a cloudy night in the woods. Until her eyes accustomed themselves to the transition from firelight to the gloom, she could see nothing but vague shapes that she knew to be the horses, and another dim, moving object that was Bill Wagstaff. Beyond that the inky canopy above and the forest surrounding seemed a solid wall.

"It's going to be nasty traveling, Miss Weir," Roaring Bill spoke at her elbow. "I'll walk and lead the packs. You ride Silk. He's gentle. All you have to do is sit still, and he'll stay right behind the packs. I'll help you mount."

If Hazel had still been inclined to insist on walking, she had no chance to debate the question. Bill took her by the arm and led her up beside the horse. It was a unique experience for her, this being compelled to do things. No man had ever issued ultimatums to her. Even Jack Barrow, with all an accepted lover's privileges, had never calmly told her that she must do thus and so, and acted on the supposition that his word was final. But here was Roaring Bill Wagstaff telling her how to put her foot in the stirrup, putting her for the first time in her life astride a horse, warning her to duck low branches. In his mind there seemed to be no question as whether or not she would ride. He had settled that.

Unused to mounting, she blundered at the first attempt, and flushed in the dark at Bill's amused chuckle. The next instant he caught her under the arms, and, with the leverage of her one foot in the stirrup, set her gently in the seat of the saddle.

"You're such a little person," he said, "these stirrups are a mile too long. Put your feet in the leather above—so. Now play follow your leader. Give Silk his head."

He moved away. The blurred shapes of the pack horses forged ahead, rustling in the dry grass, dry twigs snapping under foot. Obedient to Bill's command, she let the reins dangle, and Silk followed close behind his mates. Hazel lurched unsteadily at first, but presently she caught the swinging motion and could maintain her balance without holding stiffly to the saddle horn.

They crossed the small meadow and plunged into thick woods again. For the greater part of the way Hazel could see nothing; she could tell that Wagstaff and the pack horses moved before her by the sounds of their progress, and that was all. Now and then low-hanging limbs reached suddenly out of the dark, and touched her with unseen fingers, or swept rudely across her face and hair.

The night seemed endless as the wilderness itself. Unused to riding, she became sore, and then the sore muscles stiffened. The chill of the night air intensified. She grew cold, her fingers numb. She did not know where she was going, and she was assailed with doubts of Roaring Bill's ability to find Cariboo Meadows.

For what seemed to her an interminable length of time they bore slowly on through timber, crossed openings where the murk of the night thinned a little, enabling her to see the dim form of Wagstaff plodding in the lead. Again they dipped down steep slopes and ascended others as steep, where Silk was forced to scramble, and Hazel kept a precarious seat. She began to feel, with an odd heart sinking, that sufficient time had elapsed for them to reach the Meadows, even by a roundabout way. Then, as they crossed a tiny, gurgling stream, and came upon a level place beyond, Silk bumped into the other horses and stopped. Hazel hesitated a second. There was no sound of movement.

"Mr. Wagstaff!" she called.

"Yours truly," his voice hailed back, away to one side. "I'll be there in a minute."

In less time he appeared beside her.

"Will you fall off, or be lifted off?" he said cheerfully.

"Where are we?" she demanded.

"Ask me something easy," he returned. "I've been going it blind for an hour, trying to hit the Soda Creek Trail, or any old trail that would show me where I am. It's no use. Too dark. A man couldn't find his way over country that he knew to-night if he had a lantern and a compass."

"What on earth am I going to do?" Hazel cried desperately.

"Camp here till daylight," Roaring Bill answered evenly. "The only thing you can do. Good Lord!" His hand accidentally rested on hers. "You're like ice. I didn't think about you getting cold riding. I'm a mighty thoughtless escort, I'm afraid. Get down and put on a coat, and I'll have a fire in a minute."

"I suppose if I must, I must; but I can get off without any help, thank you," Hazel answered ungraciously.

Roaring Bill made no reply, but stood back, and when her feet touched solid earth he threw over her boulders the coat he had worn himself. Then he turned away, and Hazel saw him stooping here and there, and heard the crack of dry sticks broken over his knee. In no time he was back to the horses with an armful of dry stuff, and had a small blaze licking up through dry grass and twigs. As it grew he piled on larger sticks till the bright flame waved two feet high, lighting up the near-by woods and shedding a bright glow on the three horses standing patiently at hand. He paid no attention to Hazel until she came timidly up to the fire. Then he looked up at her with his whimsical smile.

"That's right," he said; "come on and get warm. No use worrying—or getting cross. I suppose from your civilized, conventional point of view it's a terrible thing to be out in the woods all night alone with a strange man. But I'm not a bear—I won't eat you."

"I'm sorry if I seemed rude," Hazel said penitently; Roaring Bill's statement was reassuring in its frankness. "I can't help thinking of the disagreeable side of it. People talk so. I suppose I'll be a nine days' wonder in Cariboo Meadows."

Bill laughed softly.

"Let them take it out in wondering," he advised. "Cariboo Meadows is a very small and insignificant portion of the world, anyway."

He went to one of the packs, and came back with a canvas cover, which he spread on the ground.

"Sit on that," he said. "The earth's always damp in the woods."

Then he stripped the horses of their burdens and tied them out of sight among the trees. That task finished, he took his ax and rustled a pile of wood, dragging dead poles up to the fire and chopping them into short lengths. When finally he laid aside his ax, he busied himself with gathering grass and leaves and pine needles until he had several armfuls collected and spread in an even pile to serve as a mattress. Upon this he laid his bedding, two thick quilts, two or three pairs of woolen blankets, a pillow, the whole inclosed with a long canvas sheet, the bed tarpaulin of the cattle ranges.

"There," he said; "you can turn in whenever you feel like it."

For himself he took the saddle blankets and laid them close by the fire within reaching distance of the woodpile, taking for cover a pack canvas. He stretched himself full length, filled his pipe, lit it, and fell to staring into the fire while he smoked.

Half an hour later he raised his head and looked across the fire at Hazel.

"Why don't you go to bed?" he asked.

"I'm not sleepy," she declared, which was a palpable falsehood, for her eyelids were even then drooping.

"Maybe not, but you need rest," Bill said quietly. "Quit thinking things. It'll be all the same a hundred years from now. Go on to bed. You'll be more comfortable."

Thus peremptorily commanded, Hazel found herself granting instant obedience. The bed, as Bill had remarked, was far more comfortable than sitting by the fire. She got into the blankets just as she stood, even to her shoes, and drew the canvas sheet up so that it hid her face—but did not prevent her from seeing.

In spite of herself, she slept fitfully. Now and then she would wake with a start to a half-frightened realization of her surroundings and plight, and whenever she did wake and look past the fire it was to see Roaring Bill Wagstaff stretched out in the red glow, his brown head pillowed on one folded arm. Once she saw him reach to the wood without moving his body and lay a stick on the fire.

Then all at once she wakened out of sound slumber with a violent start. Roaring Bill was shaking the tarpaulin over her and laughing.

"Arise, Miss Sleeping Beauty!" he said boyishly. "Breakfast's ready."

He went back to the fire. Hazel sat up, patting her tousled hair into some semblance of order. Off in the east a reddish streak spread skyward into somber gray. In the west, black night gave ground slowly.

"Well, it's another day," she whispered, as she had whispered to herself once before. "I wonder if there will ever be any more like it?"



CHAPTER VIII

IN DEEP WATER

The dawn thrust aside night's somber curtains while they ate, revealing a sky overcast with slaty clouds. What with her wanderings of the night before and the journey through the dark with Roaring Bill, she had absolutely no idea of either direction or locality. The infolding timber shut off the outlook. Forest-clad heights upreared here and there, but no landmark that she could place and use for a guide. She could not guess whether Cariboo Meadows was a mile distant, or ten, nor in what direction it might lie. If she had not done so before, she now understood how much she had to depend on Roaring Bill Wagstaff.

"Do you suppose I can get home in time to open school?" she inquired anxiously.

Roaring Bill smiled. "I don't know," he answered. "It all depends."

Upon what it depended he did not specify, but busied himself packing up. In half an hour or less they were ready to start. Bill spent a few minutes longer shortening the stirrups, then signified that she should mount. He seemed more thoughtful, less inclined to speech.

"You know where you are now, don't you?" she asked.

"Not exactly," he responded. "But I will before long—I hope."

The ambiguity of his answer did not escape her. She puzzled over it while Silk ambled sedately behind the other horses. She hoped that Bill Wagstaff knew where he was going. If he did not—but she refused to entertain the alternative. And she began to watch eagerly for some sign of familiar ground.

For two hours Roaring Bill tramped through aisles bordered with pine and spruce and fir, through thickets of berry bush, and across limited areas of grassy meadow. Not once did they cross a road or a trail. With the clouds hiding the sun, she could not tell north from south after they left camp. Eventually Bill halted at a small stream to get a drink. Hazel looked at her watch. It was half past eight.

"Aren't we ever going to get there?" she called impatiently.

"Pretty soon," he called back, and struck out briskly again.

Another hour passed. Ahead of her, leading one pack horse and letting the other follow untrammeled, Roaring Bill kept doggedly on, halting for nothing, never looking back. If he did not know where he was going, he showed no hesitation. And Hazel had no choice but to follow.

They crossed a ravine and slanted up a steep hillside. Presently Hazel could look away over an area of woodland undulating like a heavy ground swell at sea. Here and there ridges stood forth boldly above the general roll, and distantly she could descry a white-capped mountain range. They turned the end of a thick patch of pine scrub, and Bill pulled up in a small opening. From a case swinging at his belt he took out a pair of field glasses, and leisurely surveyed the country.

"Well?" Hazel interrogated.

She herself had cast an anxious glance over the wide sweep below and beyond, seeing nothing but timber and hills, with the silver thread of a creek winding serpent-wise through the green. But of habitation or trail there was never a sign. And it was after ten o'clock. They were over four hours from their camp ground.

"Nothing in sight, is there?" Bill said thoughtfully. "If the sun was out, now. Funny I can't spot that Soda Creek Trail."

"Don't you know this country at all?" she asked gloomily.

"I thought I did," he replied. "But I can't seem to get my bearings to work out correctly. I'm awfully sorry to keep you in such a pickle. But it can't be helped."

Thus he disarmed her for the time being. She could not find fault with a man who was doing his best to help her. If Roaring Bill were unable to bear straight for the Meadows, it was unfortunate for her, but no fault of his. At the same time, it troubled her more than she would admit.

"Well, we won't get anywhere standing on this hill," he remarked at length.

He took up the lead rope and moved on. They dropped over the ridge crest and once more into the woods. Roaring Bill made his next halt beside a spring, and fell to unlashing the packs.

"What are you going to do?" Hazel asked.

"Cook a bite, and let the horses graze," he told her. "Do you realize that we've been going since daylight? It's near noon. Horses have to eat and rest once in a while, just the same as human beings."

The logic of this Hazel could not well deny, since she herself was tired and ravenously hungry. By her watch it was just noon.

Bill hobbled out his horses on the grass below the spring, made a fire, and set to work cooking. For the first time the idea of haste seemed to have taken hold of him. He worked silently at the meal getting, fried steaks of venison, and boiled a pot of coffee. They ate. He filled his pipe, and smoked while he repacked. Altogether, he did not consume more than forty minutes at the noon halt. Hazel, now woefully saddle sore, would fain have rested longer, and, in default of resting, tried to walk and lead Silk. Roaring Bill offered no objection to that. But he hit a faster gait. She could not keep up, and he did not slacken pace when she began to fall behind. So she mounted awkwardly, and Silk jolted and shook her with his trotting until he caught up with his mates. Bill grinned over his shoulder.

"You're learning fast," he called back. "You'll be able to run a pack train by and by."

The afternoon wore on without bringing them any nearer Cariboo Meadows so far as Hazel could see. Traveling over a country swathed in timber and diversified in contour, she could not tell whether Roaring Bill swung in a circle or bore straight for some given point.

She speculated futilely on the outcome of the strange plight she was in. It was a far cry from pounding a typewriter in a city office to jogging through the wilderness, lost beyond peradventure, her only company a stranger of unsavory reputation. Yet she was not frightened, for all the element of unreality. Under other circumstances she could have relished the adventure, taken pleasure in faring gypsy fashion over the wide reaches where man had left no mark. As it was—

She called a halt at four o'clock.

"Mr. Wagstaff!"

Bill stopped his horses and came back to her.

"Aren't we ever going to get anywhere?" she asked soberly.

"Sure! But we've got to keep going. Got to make the best of a bad job," he returned. "Getting pretty tired?"

"I am," she admitted. "I'm afraid I can't ride much longer. I could walk if you wouldn't go so fast. Aren't there any ranches in this country at all?"

He shook his head. "They're few and far between," he said. "Don't worry, though. It isn't a life-and-death matter. If we were out here without grub or horses it might be tough. You're in no danger from exposure or hunger."

"You don't seem to realize the position it puts me in," Hazel answered. A wave of despondency swept over her, and her eyes grew suddenly bright with the tears she strove to keep back. "If we wander around in the woods much longer, I'll simply be a sensation when I do get back to Cariboo Meadows. I won't have a shred of reputation left. It will probably result in my losing the school. You're a man, and it's different with you. You can't know what a girl has to contend with where no one knows her. I'm a stranger in this country, and what little they do know of me—"

She stopped short, on the point of saying that what Cariboo Meadows knew of her through the medium of Mr. Howard Perkins was not at all to her credit.

Roaring Bill looked up at her impassively. "I know," he said, as if he had read her thought. "Your friend Perkins talked a lot. But what's the difference? Cariboo Meadows is only a fleabite. If you're right, and you know you're right, you can look the world in the eye and tell it collectively to go to the devil. Besides, you've got a perverted idea. People aren't so ready to give you the bad eye on somebody else's say-so. It would take a lot more than a flash drummer's word to convince me that you're a naughty little girl. Pshaw—forget it!"

Hazel colored hotly at his mention of Perkins, but for the latter part of his speech she could have hugged him. Bill Wagstaff went a long way, in those brief sentences, toward demolishing her conviction that no man ever overlooked an opportunity of taking advantage of a woman. But Bill said nothing further. He stood a moment longer by her horse, resting one hand on Silk's mane, and scraping absently in the soft earth with the toe of his boot.

"Well, let's get somewhere," he said abruptly. "If you're too saddle sore to ride, walk a while. I'll go slower."

She walked, and the exercise relieved the cramping ache in her limbs. Roaring Bill's slower pace was fast enough at that. She followed till her strength began to fail. And when in spite of her determination she lagged behind, he stopped at the first water.

"We'll camp here," he said. "You're about all in, and we can't get anywhere to-night, I see plainly."

Hazel accepted this dictum as best she could. She eat down on a mossy rock while he stripped the horses of their gear and staked them out. Then Bill started a fire and fixed the roll of bedding by it for her to sit on. Dusk crept over the forest while he cooked supper, making a bannock in the frying pan to take the place of bread; and when they had finished eating and washed the few dishes, night shut down black as the pit.

They talked little. Hazel was in the grip of utter forlornness, moody, wishful to cry. Roaring Bill lumped on his side of the fire, staring thoughtfully into the blaze. After a long period of abstraction he glanced at his watch, then arose and silently arranged her bed. After that he spread his saddle blankets and lay down.

Hazel crept into the covers and quietly sobbed herself to sleep. The huge and silent land appalled her. She had been chucked neck and crop into the primitive, and she had not yet been able to react to her environment. She was neither faint-hearted nor hysterical. The grind of fending for herself in a city had taught her the necessity of self-control. But she was worn out, unstrung, and there is a limit to a woman's endurance.

As on the previous night, she wakened often and glanced over to the fire. Roaring Bill kept his accustomed position, flat in the glow. She had no fear of him now. But he was something of an enigma. She had few illusions about men in general. She had encountered a good many of them in one way and another since reaching the age when she coiled her hair on top of her head. And she could not recall one—not even Jack Barrow—with whom she would have felt at ease in a similar situation. She knew that there was a something about her that drew men. If the presence of her had any such effect on Bill Wagstaff, he painstakingly concealed it.

And she was duly grateful for that. She had not believed it a characteristic of his type—the virile, intensely masculine type of man. But she had not once found him looking at her with the same expression in his eyes that she had seen once over Jim Briggs' dining table.

Night passed, and dawn ushered in a clearing sky. Ragged wisps of clouds chased each other across the blue when they set out again. Hazel walked the stiffness out of her muscles before she mounted. When she did get on Silk, Roaring Bill increased his pace. He was long-legged and light of foot, apparently tireless. She asked no questions. What was the use? He would eventually come out somewhere. She was resigned to wait.

After a time she began to puzzle, and the old uneasiness came back. The last trailing banner of cloud vanished, and the sun rode clear in an opal sky, smiling benignly down on the forested land. She was thus enabled to locate the cardinal points of the compass. Wherefore she took to gauging their course by the shadows. And the result was what set her thinking. Over level and ridge and swampy hollow, Roaring Bill drove straight north in an undeviating line. She recollected that the point from which she had lost her way had lain northeast of Cariboo Meadows. Even if they had swung in a circle, they could scarcely be pointing for the town in that direction. For another hour Bill held to the northern line as a needle holds to the pole. A swift rush of misgiving seized her.

"Mr. Wagstaff!" she called sharply.

Roaring Bill stopped, and she rode Silk up past the pack horses.

"Where are you taking me?" she demanded.

"Why, I'm taking you home—or trying to," he answered mildly.

"But you're going north," she declared. "You've been going north all morning. I was north of Cariboo Meadows when I got lost. How can we get back to Cariboo Meadows by going still farther north?"

"You're more of a woodsman than I imagined," Bill remarked gently. He smiled up at her, and drew out his pipe and tobacco pouch.

She looked at him for a minute. "Do you know where we are now?" she asked quietly.

He met her keen gaze calmly. "I do," he made laconic answer.

"Which way is Cariboo Meadows, then, and how far is it?" she demanded.

"General direction south," he replied slowly. "Fifty miles more or less. Rather more than less."

"And you've been leading me straight north!" she cried. "Oh, what am I going to do?"

"Keep right on going," Wagstaff answered.

"I won't—I won't!" she flashed. "I'll find my own way back. What devilish impulse prompted you to do such a thing?"

"You'll have a beautiful time of it," he said dryly, completely ignoring her last question. "Take you three days to walk there—if you knew every foot of the way. And you don't know the way. Traveling in timber is confusing, as you've discovered. You'll never see Cariboo Meadows, or any other place, if you tackle it single-handed, without grub or matches or bedding. It's fall, remember. A snowstorm is due any time. This is a whopping big country. A good many men have got lost in it—and other men have found their bones."

He let this sink in while she sat there on his horse choking back a wild desire to curse him by bell, book, and candle for what he had done, and holding in check the fear of what he might yet do. She knew him to be a different type of man from any she had ever encountered. She could not escape the conclusion that Roaring Bill Wagstaff was something of a law unto himself, capable of hewing to the line of his own desires at any cost. She realized her utter helplessness, and the realization left her without words. He had drawn a vivid picture, and the instinct of self-preservation asserted itself.

"You misled me." She found her voice at last. "Why?"

"Did I mislead you?" he parried. "Weren't you already lost when you came to my camp? And have I mistreated you in any manner? Have I refused you food, shelter, or help?"

"My home is in Cariboo Meadows," she persisted. "I asked you to take me there. You led me away from there deliberately, I believe now."

"My trail doesn't happen to lead to Cariboo Meadows, that's all," Roaring Bill coolly told her. "If you must go back there, I shan't restrain you in any way whatever. But I'm for home myself. And that," he came close, and smiled frankly up at her, "is a better place than Cariboo Meadows. I've got a little house back there in the woods. There's a big fireplace where the wind plays tag with the snowflakes in winter time. There's grub there, and meat in the forest, and fish in the streams. It's home for me. Why should I go back to Cariboo Meadows? Or you?"

"Why should I go with you?" she demanded scornfully.

"Because I want you to," he murmured.

They matched glances for a second, Wagstaff smiling, she half horrified.

"Are you clean mad?" she asked angrily. "I was beginning to think you a gentleman."

Bill threw back his head and laughed. Then on the instant he sobered. "Not a gentleman," he said. "I'm just plain man. And lonesome sometimes for a mate, as nature has ordained to be the way of flesh."

"Get a squaw, then," she sneered. "I've heard that such people as you do that."

"Not me," he returned, unruffled. "I want a woman of my own kind."

"Heaven save me from that classification!" she observed, with emphasis on the pronoun.

"Yes?" he drawled. "Well, there's no profit in arguing that point. Let's be getting on."

He reached for the lead rope of the nearest pack horse.

Hazel urged Silk up a step. "Mr. Wagstaff," she cried, "I must go back."

"You can't go back without me," he said. "And I'm not traveling that way, thank you."

"Please—oh, please!" she begged forlornly.

Roaring Bill's face hardened. "I will not," he said flatly. "I'm going to play the game my way. And I'll play fair. That's the only promise I will make."

She took a look at the encompassing woods, and her heart sank at facing those shadowy stretches alone and unguided. The truth of his statement that she would never reach Cariboo Meadows forced itself home. There was but the one way out, and her woman's wit would have to save her.

"Go on, then," she gritted, in a swift surge of anger. "I am afraid to face this country alone. I admit my helplessness. But so help me Heaven, I'll make you pay for this dirty trick! You're not a man! You're a cur—a miserable, contemptible scoundrel!"

"Whew!" Roaring Bill laughed. "Those are pretty names. Just the same, I admire your grit. Well, here we go!"

He took up the lead rope, and went on without even looking back to see if she followed. If he had made the slightest attempt to force her to come, if he had betrayed the least uncertainty as to whether she would come, Hazel would have swung down from the saddle and set her face stubbornly southward in sheer defiance of him. But such is the peculiar complexity of a woman that she took one longing glance backward, and then fell in behind the packs. She was weighted down with dread of the unknown, boiling over with rage at the man who swung light-footed in the lead; but nevertheless she followed him.



CHAPTER IX

THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT

All the rest of that day they bore steadily northward. Hazel had no idea of Bill Wagstaff's destination. She was too bitter against him to ask, after admitting that she could not face the wilderness alone. Between going it alone and accompanying him, it seemed to be a case of choosing the lesser evil. Curiously she felt no fear of Bill Wagstaff in person, and she did have a dread vision of what might happen to her if she went wandering alone in the woods. There was one loophole left to comfort her. It seemed scarcely reasonable that they could fare on forever without encountering other frontier folk. Upon that possibility she based her hopes of getting back to civilization, not so much for love of civilization as to defeat Roaring Bill's object, to show him that a woman had to be courted rather than carried away against her will by any careless, strong-armed male. She knew nothing of the North, but she thought there must be some mode of communication or transportation. If she could once get in touch with other people—well, she would show Roaring Bill. Of course, getting back to Cariboo Meadows meant a new start in the world, for she had no hope, nor any desire, to teach school there after this episode. She found herself facing that prospect unmoved, however. The important thing was getting out of her present predicament.

Roaring Bill made his camp that night as if no change in their attitude had taken place. To all his efforts at conversation she turned a deaf ear and a stony countenance. She proposed to eat his food and use his bedding, because that was necessary. But socially she would have none of him. Bill eventually gave over trying to talk. But he lost none of his cheerfulness. He lay on his own side of the fire, regarding her with the amused tolerance that one bestows upon the capricious temper of a spoiled child.

Thereafter, day by day, the miles unrolled behind them. Always Roaring Bill faced straight north. For a week he kept on tirelessly, and a consuming desire to know how far he intended to go began to take hold of her. But she would not ask, even when daily association dulled the edge of her resentment, and she found it hard to keep up her hostile attitude, to nurse bitterness against a man who remained serenely unperturbed, and who, for all his apparent lawlessness, treated her as a man might treat his sister.

To her unpracticed eye, the character of the country remained unchanged except for minor variations. Everywhere the timber stood in serried ranks, spotted with lakes and small meadows, and threaded here and there with little streams. But at last they dropped into a valley where the woods thinned out, and down the center of which flowed a sizable river. This they followed north a matter of three days. On the west the valley wall ran to a timbered ridge. Eastward the jagged peaks of a snow-capped mountain chain pierced the sky.

Two hours from their noon camp on the fourth day in the valley Hazel sighted some moving objects in the distance, angling up on the timber-patched hillside. She watched them, at first uncertain whether they were moose, which they had frequently encountered, or domestic animals. Accustomed by now to gauging direction at a glance toward the sun, she observed that these objects traveled south.

Presently, as the lines of their respective travel brought them nearer, she made them out to be men, mounted, and accompanied by packs. She counted the riders—five, and as many pack horses. One, she felt certain, was a woman—whether white or red she could not tell. But—there was safety in numbers. And they were going south.

Upon her first impulse she swung off Silk, and started for the hillside, at an angle calculated to intercept the pack train. There was a chance, and she was rapidly becoming inured to taking chances. At a distance of a hundred yards, she looked back, half fearful that Roaring Bill was at her heels. But he stood with his hands in his pockets, watching her. She did not look again until she was half a mile up the hill. Then he and his packs had vanished.

So, too, had the travelers that she was hurrying to meet. Off the valley floor, she no longer commanded the same sweeping outlook. The patches of timber intervened. As she kept on, she became more uncertain. But she bore up the slope until satisfied that she was parallel with where they should come out; then she stopped to rest. After a few minutes she climbed farther, endeavoring to reach a point whence she could see more of the slope. In so far had she absorbed woodcraft that she now began watching for tracks. There were enough of these, but they were the slender, triangle prints of the shy deer. Nothing resembling the hoofmark of a horse rewarded her searching. And before long, what with turning this way and that, she found herself on a plateau where the pine and spruce stood like bristles in a brush, and from whence she could see neither valley below nor hillside above.

She was growing tired. Her feet ached from climbing, and she was wet with perspiration. She rested again, and tried calling. But her voice sounded muffled in the timber, and she soon gave over that. The afternoon was on the wane, and she began to think of and dread the coming of night. Already the sun had dipped out of sight behind the western ridges; his last beams were gilding the blue-white pinnacles a hundred miles to the east. The shadows where she sat were thickening. She had given up hope of finding the pack train, and she had cut loose from Roaring Bill. It would be just like him to shrug his shoulders and keep on going, she thought resentfully.

As twilight fell a brief panic seized her, followed by frightened despair. The wilderness, in its evening hush, menaced her with huge emptinesses, utter loneliness. She worked her way to the edge of the wooded plateau. There was a lingering gleam of yellow and rose pink on the distant mountains, but the valley itself lay in a blur of shade, out of which rose the faint murmur of running water, a monotone in the silence. She sat down on a dead tree, and cried softly to herself.

"Well?"

She started, with an involuntary gasp of fear, it was so unexpected. Roaring Bill Wagstaff stood within five feet of her, resting one hand on the muzzle of his grounded rifle, smiling placidly.



"Well," he repeated, "this chasing up a pack train isn't so easy as it looks, eh?"

She did not answer. Her pride would not allow her to admit that she was glad to see him, relieved to be overtaken like a truant from school. And Bill did not seem to expect a reply. He slung his rifle into the crook of his arm.

"Come on, little woman," he said gently. "I knew you'd be tired, and I made camp down below. It isn't far."

Obediently she followed him, and as she tramped at his heels she saw why he had been able to come up on her so noiselessly. He had put on a pair of moccasins, and his tread gave forth no sound.

"How did you manage to find me?" she asked suddenly—the first voluntary speech from her in days.

Bill answered over his shoulder:

"Find you? Bless your soul, your little, high-heeled slices left a trail a one-eyed man could follow. I've been within fifty yards of you for two hours.

"Just the same," he continued, after a minute's interval, "it's bad business for you to run off like that. Suppose you played hide and seek with me till a storm wiped out your track? You'd be in a deuce of a fix."

She made no reply. The lesson of the experience was not lost on her, but she was not going to tell him so.

In a short time they reached camp. Roaring Bill had tarried long enough to unpack. The horses grazed on picket. It was borne in upon her that short of actually meeting other people her only recourse lay in sticking to Bill Wagstaff, whether she liked it or not. To strike out alone was courting self-destruction. And she began to understand why Roaring Bill made no effort to watch or restrain her. He knew the grim power of the wilderness. It was his best ally in what he had set out to do.

Within forty-eight hours the stream they followed merged itself in another, both wide and deep, which flowed west through a level-bottomed valley three miles or more in width. Westward the land spread out in a continuous roll, marked here and there with jutting ridges and isolated peaks; but on the east a chain of rugged mountains marked the horizon as far as she could see.

Roaring Bill halted on the river brink and stripped his horses clean, though it was but two in the afternoon and their midday fire less than an hour extinguished. She watched him curiously. When his packs were off he beckoned her.

"Hold them a minute," he said, and put the lead ropes in her hand.

Then he went up the bank into a thicket of saskatoons. Out of this he presently emerged, bearing on his shoulders a canoe, old and weather-beaten, but stanch, for it rode light as a feather on the stream. Bill seated himself in the canoe, holding to Silk's lead rope. The other two he left free.

"Now," he directed, "when I start across, you drive Nigger and Satin in if they show signs of hanging back. Bounce a rock or two off them if they lag."

Her task was an easy one, for Satin and Nigger followed Silk unhesitatingly. The river lapped along the sleek sides of them for fifty yards. Then they dropped suddenly into swimming water, and the current swept them downstream slantwise for the opposite shore, only their heads showing above the surface. Hazel wondered what river it might be. It was a good quarter of a mile wide, and swift.

Roaring Bill did not trouble to enlighten her as to the locality. When he got back he stowed the saddle and pack equipment in the canoe.

"All aboard for the north side," he said boyishly. And Hazel climbed obediently amidships.

On the farther side, Bill emptied the canoe, and stowed it out of sight in a convenient thicket, repacked his horses, and struck out again. They left the valley behind, and camped that evening on a great height of land that rolled up to the brink of the valley.

Thereafter the country underwent a gradual change as they progressed north, slanting a bit eastward. The heavy timber gave way to a sparser growth, and that in turn dwindled to scrubby thickets, covering great areas of comparative level. Long reaches of grassland opened before them, waving yellow in the autumn sun. They crossed other rivers of various degrees of depth and swiftness, swimming some and fording others. Hazel drew upon her knowledge of British Columbia geography, and decided that the big river where Bill hid his canoe must be the Fraser where it debouched from the mountains. And in that case she was far north, and in a wilderness indeed.

Her muscles gradually hardened to the saddle and to walking. Her appetite grew in proportion. The small supply of eatable dainties that Roaring Bill had brought from the Meadows dwindled and disappeared, until they were living on bannocks baked a la frontier in his frying pan, on beans and coffee, and venison killed by the way. Yet she relished the coarse fare even while she rebelled against the circumstances of its partaking. Occasionally Bill varied the meat diet with trout caught in the streams beside which they made their various camps. He offered to teach her the secrets of angling, but she shrugged her shoulders by way of showing her contempt for Roaring Bill and all his works.

"Do you realize," she broke out one evening over the fire, "that this is simply abduction?"

"Not at all," Bill answered promptly. "Abduction means to take away surreptitiously by force, to carry away wrongfully and by violence any human being, to kidnap. Now, you can't by any stretch of the imagination accuse me of force, violence, or kidnaping—not by a long shot. You merely wandered into my camp, and it wasn't convenient for me to turn back. Therefore circumstances—not my act, remember—made it advisable for you to accompany me. Of course I'll admit that, according to custom and usage, you would expect me to do the polite thing and restore you to your own stamping ground. But there's no law making it mandatory for a fellow to pilot home a lady in distress. Isn't that right?"

"Anyhow," he went on, when she remained silent, "I didn't. And you'll have to lay the blame on nature for making you a wonderfully attractive woman. I did honestly try to find the way to Cariboo Meadows that first night. It was only when I found myself thinking how fine it would be to pike through these old woods and mountains with a partner like you that I decided—as I did. I'm human—the woman, she tempted me. And aren't you better off? I could hazard a guess that you were running away from yourself—or something—when you struck Cariboo Meadows. And what's Cariboo Meadows but a little blot on the face of this fair earth, where you were tied to a deadly routine in order to earn your daily bread? You don't care two whoops about anybody there. Here you are free—free in every sense of the word. You have no responsibility except what you impose on yourself; no board bills to pay; nobody to please but your own little self. You've got the clean, wide land for a bedroom, and the sky for its ceiling, instead of a stuffy little ten-by-ten chamber. Do you know that you look fifty per cent better for these few days of living in the open—the way every normal being likes to live? You're getting some color in your cheeks, and you're losing that worried, archangel look. Honest, if I were a physician, I'd have only one prescription: Get out into the wild country, and live off the country as your primitive forefathers did. Of course, you can't do that alone. I know because I've tried it. We humans don't differ so greatly from the other animals. We're made to hunt in couples or packs. There's a purpose, a law, you might say, behind that, too; only it's terribly obscured by a lot of other nonessentials in this day and age.

"Is there any comparison between this sort of life, for instance—if it appeals to one at all—and being a stenographer and bucking up against the things any good-looking, unprotected girl gets up against in a city? You know, if you'd be frank, that there isn't. Shucks! Herding in the mass, and struggling for a mere subsistence, like dogs over a bone, degenerates man physically, mentally, and morally—all our vaunted civilization and culture to the contrary notwithstanding. Eh?"

But she would not take up the cudgels against him, would not seem to countenance or condone his offense by discussing it from any angle whatsoever. And she was the more determined to allow no degree of friendliness, even in conversation, because she recognized the masterful quality of the man. She told herself that she could have liked Roaring Bill Wagstaff very well if he had not violated what she considered the rules of the game. And she had no mind to allow his personality to sweep her off her feet in the same determined manner that he had carried her into the wilderness. She was no longer afraid of him. She occasionally forgot, in spite of herself, that she had a deep-seated grievance against him. At such times the wild land, the changing vistas the journey opened up, charmed her into genuine enjoyment. She would find herself smiling at Bill's quaint tricks of speech. Then she would recollect that she was, to all intents and purposes, a prisoner, the captive of his bow and spear. That was maddening.

After a lapse of time they dropped into another valley, and faced westward to a mountain range which Bill told her was the Rockies. The next day a snowstorm struck them. At daybreak the clouds were massed overhead, lowering, and a dirty gray. An uncommon chill, a rawness of atmosphere foretold the change. And shortly after they broke camp the first snowflakes began to drift down, slowly at first, then more rapidly, until the grayness of the sky and the misty woods were enveloped in the white swirl of the storm. It was not particularly cold. Bill wrapped her in a heavy canvas coat, and plodded on. Noon passed, and he made no stop. If anything, he increased his pace.

Suddenly, late in the afternoon, they stepped out of the timber into a little clearing, in which the blurred outline of a cabin showed under the wide arms of a leafless tree.

The melting snow had soaked through the coat; her feet were wet with the clinging flakes, and the chill of a lowering temperature had set Hazel shivering.

Roaring Bill halted at the door and lifted her down from Silk's back without the formality of asking her leave. He pulled the latchstring, and led her in. Beside the rude stone fireplace wood and kindling were piled in readiness for use. Bill kicked the door shut, dropped on his knees, and started the fire. In five minutes a great blaze leaped and crackled into the wide throat of the chimney. Then he piled on more wood, and turned to her.

"This is the house that Jack built," he said, with a sober face and a twinkle in his gray eyes. "This is the man that lives in the house that Jack built. And this"—he pointed mischievously at her—"is the woman who's going to love the man that lives in the house that Jack built."

"That's a lie!" she flashed stormily through her chattering teeth.

"Well, we'll see," he answered cheerfully. "Get up here close to the fire and take off those wet things while I put away the horses."

And with that he went out, whistling.



CHAPTER X

A LITTLE PERSONAL HISTORY

Hazel discarded the wet coat, and, drawing a chair up to the fire, took off her sopping footgear and toasted her bare feet at the blaze. Her clothing was also wet, and she wondered pettishly how in the world she was going to manage with only the garments on her back—and those dirty and torn from hacking through the brush for a matter of two weeks. According to her standards, that was roughing it with a vengeance. But presently she gave over thinking of her plight. The fire warmed her, and, with the chill gone from her body, she bestowed a curious glance on her surroundings.

Her experience of homes embraced only homes of two sorts—the middle-class, conventional sort to which she had been accustomed, and the few poorly furnished frontier dwellings she had entered since coming to the hinterlands of British Columbia. She had a vague impression that any dwelling occupied exclusively by a man must of necessity be dirty, disordered, and cheerless. But she had never seen a room such as the one she now found herself in. It conformed to none of her preconceived ideas.

There was furniture of a sort unknown to her, tables and chairs fashioned by hand with infinite labor and rude skill, massive in structure, upholstered with the skins of wild beasts common to the region. Upon the walls hung pictures, dainty black-and-white prints, and a water color or two. And between the pictures were nailed heads of mountain sheep and goat, the antlers of deer and caribou. Above the fireplace spread the huge shovel horns of a moose, bearing across the prongs a shotgun and fishing rods. The center of the floor—itself, as she could see, of hand-smoothed logs—was lightened with a great black and red and yellow rug of curious weave. Covering up the bare surface surrounding it were bearskins, black and brown. Her feet rested in the fur of a monster silvertip, fur thicker and softer than the pile of any carpet ever fabricated by man. All around the walls ran shelves filled with books. A guitar stood in one corner, a mandolin in another. The room was all of sixteen by twenty feet, and it was filled with trophies of the wild—and books.

Except for the dust that had gathered lightly in its owner's absence, the place was as neat and clean as if the housemaid had but gone over it. Hazel shrugged her shoulders. Roaring Bill Wagstaff became, if anything, more of an enigma than ever, in the light of his dwelling. She recollected that Cariboo Meadows had regarded him askance, and wondered why.

He came in while her gaze was still roving from one object to another, and threw his wet outer clothing, boy fashion, on the nearest chair.

"Well," he said, "we're here."

"Please don't forget, Mr. Wagstaff," she replied coldly, "that I would much prefer not to be here."

He stood a moment regarding her with his odd smile. Then he went into the adjoining room. Out of this he presently emerged, dragging a small steamer trunk. He opened it, got down on his knees, and pawed over the contents. Hazel, looking over her shoulder, saw that the trunk was filled with woman's garments, and sat amazed.

"Say, little person," Bill finally remarked, "it looks to me as if you could outfit yourself completely right here."

"I don't know that I care to deck myself in another woman's finery, thank you," she returned perversely.

"Now, see here," Roaring Bill turned reproachfully; "see here—"

He grinned to himself then, and went again into the other room, returning with a small, square mirror. He planted himself squarely in front of her, and held up the glass. Hazel took one look at her reflection, and she could have struck Roaring Bill for his audacity. She had not realized what an altogether disreputable appearance a normally good-looking young woman could acquire in two weeks on the trail, with no toilet accessories and only the clothes on her back. She tried to snatch the mirror from him, but Bill eluded her reach, and laid the glass on the table.

"You'll feel a whole better able to cope with the situation," he told her smilingly, "when you get some decent clothes on and your hair fixed. That's a woman. And you don't need to feel squeamish about these things. This trunk's got a history, let me tell you. A bunch of simon-pure tenderfeet strayed into the mountains west of here a couple of summers ago. There were two women in the bunch. The youngest one, who was about your age and size, must have had more than her share of vanity. I guess she figured on charming the bear and the moose, or the simple aborigines who dwell in this neck of the woods. Anyhow, she had all kinds of unnecessary fixings along, that trunkful of stuff in the lot. You can imagine what a nice time their guides had packing that on a horse, eh? They got into a deuce of a pickle finally, and had to abandon a lot of their stuff, among other things the steamer trunk. I lent them a hand, and they told me to help myself to the stuff. So I did after they were out of the country. That's how you come to have a wardrobe all ready to your hand. Now, you'd be awful foolish to act like a mean and stiff-necked female person. You're not going to, are you?" he wheedled. "Because I want to make you comfortable. What's the use of getting on your dignity over a little thing like clothes?"

"I don't intend to," Hazel suddenly changed front. "I'll make myself as comfortable as I can—particularly if it will put you to any trouble."

"You're bound to scrap, eh?" he grinned. "But it takes two to build a fight, and I positively refuse to fight with you."

He dragged the trunk back into the room, and came out carrying a great armful of masculine belongings. Two such trips he made, piling all his things onto a chair.

"There!" he said at last. "That end of the house belongs to you, little person. Now, get those wet things off before you catch a cold. Oh, wait a minute!"

He disappeared into the kitchen end of the house, and came back with a wash-basin and a pail of water.

"Your room is now ready, madam, an it please you." He bowed with mock dignity, and went back into the kitchen.

Hazel heard him rattling pots and dishes, whistling cheerfully the while. She closed the door, and busied herself with an inventory of the tenderfoot lady's trunk. In it she found everything needful for complete change, and a variety of garments to boot. Folded in the bottom of the trunk was a gray cloth skirt and a short blue silk kimono. There was a coat and skirt, too, of brown corduroy. But the feminine instinct asserted itself, and she laid out the gray skirt and the kimono.

For a dresser Roaring Bill had fashioned a wide shelf, and on it she found a toilet set complete—hand mirror, military brushes, and sundry articles, backed with silver and engraved with his initials. Perhaps with a spice of malice, she put on a few extra touches. There would be some small satisfaction in tantalizing Bill Wagstaff—even if she could not help feeling that it might be a dangerous game. And, thus arrayed in the weapons of her sex, she slipped on the kimono, and went into the living-room to the cheerful glow of the fire.

Bill remained busy in the kitchen. Dusk fell. The gleam of a light showed through a crack in the door. In the big room only the fire gave battle to the shadows, throwing a ruddy glow into the far corners. Presently Bill came in with a pair of candles which he set on the mantel above the fireplace.

"By Jove!" he said, looking down at her. "You look good enough to eat! I'm not a cannibal, however," he continued hastily, when Hazel flushed. She was not used to such plain speaking. "And supper's ready. Come on!"

The table was set. Moreover, to her surprise—and yet not so greatly to her surprise, for she was beginning to expect almost anything from this paradoxical young man—it was spread with linen, and the cutlery was silver, the dishes china, in contradistinction to the tinware of his camp outfit.

As a cook Roaring Bill Wagstaff had no cause to be ashamed of himself, and Hazel enjoyed the meal, particularly since she had eaten nothing since six in the morning. After a time, when her appetite was partially satisfied, she took to glancing over his kitchen. There seemed to be some adjunct of a kitchen missing. A fire burned on a hearth similar to the one in the living room. Pots stood about the edge of the fire. But there was no sign of a stove.

Bill finished eating, and resorted to cigarette material instead of his pipe.

"Well, little person," he said at last, "what do you think of this joint of mine, anyway?"

"I've just been wondering," she replied. "I don't see any stove, yet you have food here that looks as if it were baked, and biscuits that must have been cooked in an oven."

"You see no stove for the good and sufficient reason," he returned, "that you can't pack a stove on a horse—and we're three hundred odd miles from the end of any wagon road. With a Dutch oven or two—that heavy, round iron thing you see there—I can guarantee to cook almost anything you can cook on a stove. Anybody can if they know how. Besides, I like things better this way. If I didn't, I suppose I'd have a stove—and maybe a hot-water supply, and modern plumbing. As it is, it affords me a sort of prideful satisfaction, which you may or may not be able to understand, that this cabin and everything in it is the work of my hands—of stuff I've packed in here with all sorts of effort from the outside. Maybe I'm a freak. But I'm proud of this place. Barring the inevitable lonesomeness that comes now and then, I can be happier here than any place I've ever struck yet. This country grows on one."

"Yes—on one's nerves," Hazel retorted.

Bill smiled, and, rising, began to clear away the dishes. Hazel resisted an impulse to help. She would not work; she would not lift her finger to any task, she reminded herself. He had put her in her present position, and he could wait on her. So she rested an elbow on the table and watched him. In the midst of his work he stopped suddenly.

"There's oceans of time to do this," he observed. "I'm just a wee bit tired, if anybody should ask you. Let's camp in the other room. It's a heap more comfy."

He put more wood on the kitchen fire, and set a pot of water to heat. Out in the living-room Hazel drew her chair to one side of the hearth. Bill sprawled on the bearskin robe with another cigarette in his fingers.

"No," he began, after a long silence, "this country doesn't get on one's nerves—not if one is a normal human being. You'll find that. When I first came up here I thought so, too; it seemed so big and empty and forbidding. But the more I see of it the better it compares with the outer world, where the extremes of luxury and want are always in evidence. It began to seem like home to me when I first looked down into this little basin. I had a partner then. I said to him: 'Here's a dandy, fine place to winter.' So we wintered—in a log shack sixteen foot square that Silk and Satin and Nigger have for a stable now. When summer came my partner wanted to move on, so I stayed. Stayed and began to build for the next winter. And I've been working at it ever since, making little things like chairs and tables and shelves, and fixing up game heads whenever I got an extra good one. And maybe two or three times a year I'd go out. Get restless, you know. I'm not really a hermit by nature. Lord, the things I've packed in here from the outside! Books—I hired a whole pack train at Ashcroft once to bring in just books; they thought I was crazy, I guess. I've quit this place once or twice, but I always come back. It's got that home feel that I can't find anywhere else. Only it has always lacked one important home qualification," he finished softly. "Do you ever build air castles?"

"No," Hazel answered untruthfully, uneasy at the trend of his talk. She was learning that Bill Wagstaff, for all his gentleness and patience with her, was a persistent mortal.

"Well, I do," he continued, unperturbed. "Lots of 'em. But mostly around one thing—a woman—a dream woman—because I never saw one that seemed to fit in until I ran across you."

"Mr. Wagstaff," Hazel pleaded, "won't you please stop talking like that? It isn't—it isn't—"

"Isn't proper, I suppose," Bill supplied dryly. "Now, that's merely an error, and a fundamental error on your part, little person. Our emotion and instincts are perfectly proper when you get down to fundamentals. You've got an artificial standard to judge by, that's all. And I don't suppose you have the least idea how many lives are spoiled one way and another by the operation of those same artificial standards in this little old world. Now, I may seem to you a lawless, unprincipled individual indeed, because I've acted contrary to your idea of the accepted order of things. But here's my side of it: I'm in search of happiness. We all are. I have a few ideals—and very few illusions. I don't quite believe in this thing called love at first sight. That presupposes a volatility of emotion that people of any strength of character arc not likely to indulge in. But—for instance, a man can have a very definite ideal of the kind of woman he would like for a mate, the kind of woman he could be happy with and could make happy. And whenever he finds a woman who corresponds to that ideal he's apt to make a strenuous attempt to get her. That's pretty much how I felt about you."

"You had no right to kidnap me," Hazel cried.

"You had no business getting lost and making it possible for me to carry you off," Bill replied. "Isn't that logic?"

"I'll never forgive you," Hazel flashed. "It was treacherous and unmanly. There are other ways of winning a woman."

"There wasn't any other way open to me." Bill grew suddenly moody. "Not with you in Cariboo Meadows. I'm taboo there. You'd have got a history of me that would have made you cut me dead; you may have had the tale of my misdeeds for all I know. No, it was impossible for me to get acquainted with you in the conventional way. I knew that, and so I didn't make any effort. Why, I'd have been at your elbow when you left the supper table at Jim Briggs' that night if I hadn't known how it would be. I went there out of sheer curiosity to take a look at you—maybe out of a spirit of defiance, too, because I knew that I was certainly not welcome even if they were willing to take my money for a meal. And I came away all up in the air. There was something about you—the tone of your voice, the way your proud little head is set on your shoulders, your make-up in general—that sent me away with a large-sized grouch at myself, at Cariboo Meadows, and at you for coming in my way."

"Why?" she asked in wonder.

"Because you'd have believed what they told you, and Cariboo Meadows can't tell anything about me that isn't bad," he said quietly. "My record there makes me entirely unfit to associate with—that would have been your conclusion. And I wanted to be with you, to talk to you, to take you by storm and make you like me as I felt I could care for you. You can't have grown up, little person, without realizing that you do attract men very strongly. All women do, but some far more than others."

"Perhaps," she admitted coldly. "Men have annoyed me with their unwelcome attentions. But none of them ever dared go the length of carrying me away against my will. You can't explain or excuse that."

"I'm not attempting excuses," Bill made answer. "There are two things I never do—apologize or bully. I dare say that's one reason the Meadows gives me such a black eye. In the first place, the confounded, ignorant fools did me a very great injustice, and I've never taken the trouble to explain to them wherein they were wrong. I came into this country with a partner six years ago—a white man, if ever one lived—about the only real man friend I ever had. He was known to have over three thousand dollars on his person. He took sick and died the second year, at the head of the Peace, in midwinter. I buried him; couldn't take him out. Somehow the yarn got to going in the Meadows that I'd murdered him for his money. The gossip started there because we had an argument about outfitting while we were there, and roasted each other as only real pals can. So they got it into their heads I killed him, and tried to have the provincial police investigate. It made me hot, and so I wouldn't explain to anybody the circumstances, nor what became of Dave's three thousand, which happened to be five thousand by that time, and which I sent to his mother and sister in New York, as he told me to do when he was dying. When they got to hinting things the next time I hit the Meadows, I started in to clean out the town. I think I whipped about a dozen men that time. And once or twice every season since I've been in the habit of dropping in there and raising the very devil out of sheer resentment. It's a wonder some fellow hasn't killed me, for it's a fact that I've thrashed every man in the blamed place except Jim Briggs—and some of them two or three times. And I make them line up at the bar and drink at my expense, and all that sort of foolishness.

"That may sound to you like real depravity," he concluded, "but it's a fact in nature that a man has to blow the steam off his chest about every so often. I have got drunk in Cariboo Meadows, and I have raised all manner of disturbances there, partly out of pure animal spirits, and mostly because I had a grudge against them. Consequently I really have given them reason to look askance at any one—particularly a nice girl from the East—who would have anything to do with me. If they weren't a good deal afraid of me, and always laying for a chance to do me up, they wouldn't let me stay in the town overnight. So you can see what a handicap I was under when it came to making your acquaintance and courting you in the orthodox manner."

"You've made a great mistake," she said bitterly, "if you think you've removed the handicap. I've suffered a great deal at the hands of men in the past six months. I'm beginning to believe that all men are brutes at heart."

Roaring Bill sat up and clasped his hands over his knees and stared fixedly into the fire.

"No," he said slowly, "all men are not brutes—any more than all women are angels. I'll convince you of that."

"Take me home, then," she cried forlornly. "That's the only way you can convince me or make amends."

"No," Bill murmured, "that isn't the way. Wait till you know me better. Besides, I couldn't take you out now if I wanted to without exposing you to greater hardships than you'll have to endure here. Do you realize that it's fall, and we're in the high latitudes? This snow may not go off at all. Even if it does it will storm again before a week. You couldn't wallow through snow to your waist in forty-below-zero weather."

"People will pass here, and I'll get word out," Hazel asserted desperately.

"What good would that do you? You've got too much conventional regard for what you term your reputation to send word to Cariboo Meadows that you're living back here with Roaring Bill Wagstaff, and won't some one please come and rescue you." He paused to let that sink in, then continued: "Besides, you won't see a white face before spring; then only by accident. No one in the North, outside of a few Indians, has ever seen this cabin or knows where it stands."

She sat there, dumb, raging inwardly. For the minute she could have killed Roaring Bill. She who had been so sure in her independence carried, whether or no, into the heart of the wilderness at the whim of a man who stood a self-confessed rowdy, in ill repute among his own kind. There was a slumbering devil in Miss Hazel Weir, and it took little to wake her temper. She looked at Bill Wagstaff, and her breast heaved. He was responsible, and he could sit coolly talking about it. The resentment that had smoldered against Andrew Bush and Jack Barrow concentrated on Roaring Bill as the arch offender of them all. And lest she yield to a savage impulse to scream at him, she got up and ran into the bedroom, slammed the door shut behind her, and threw herself across the bed to muffle the sound of her crying in a pillow.

After a time she lifted her head. Outside, the wind whistled gustily around the cabin corners. In the hushed intervals she heard a steady pad, pad, sounding sometimes close by her door, again faintly at the far end of the room. A beam of light shone through the generous latchstring hole in the door. Stealing softly over, she peeped through this hole. From end to end of the big room and back again Roaring Bill paced slowly, looking straight ahead of him with a fixed, absent stare, his teeth closed on his nether lip. Hazel blinked wonderingly. Many an hour in the last three months she had walked the floor like that, biting her lip in mental agony. And then, while she was looking, Bill abruptly extinguished the candles. In the red gleam from the hearth she saw him go into the kitchen, closing the door softly. After that there was no sound but the swirl of the storm brushing at her window.

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