This, Miss Schuyler decided, was perfectly correct, so far as it went; but she also felt tolerably certain that, while it was commendable, Hetty's loyalty to her father would be strenuously tested, and did not alone account for her restlessness.
"And there was nothing else?" she said.
"No," said Hetty, a little too decisively. "Of course! Any way, now I have told you we are not going to worry about these things to-day, and I drove fast partly because the trail is narrow, and one generally meets somebody here. Did it ever strike you, Flo, that if there's anyone you know in a country that has a bridge in it, you will, if you cross it often enough, meet him there?"
"No," and Miss Schuyler smiled satirically, "it didn't, though one would fancy it was quite likely. I, however, remember that we met Larry here not very long ago. That Canadian blanket suit shows you off quite nicely, Hetty. It is especially adapted to your kind of figure."
Hetty flicked the horses, then pulled them up again, and Miss Schuyler laughed as a sleigh with two men in it swung out from beneath the trees in front of them.
"This is, of course, a coincidence," she said.
Hetty coloured. "Don't be foolish, Flo," she said. "How could I know he was coming?"
Flora Schuyler did not answer, and Hetty was edging her horses to the side of the trail, in which two sleighs could scarcely pass, when a shout came down.
"Wait. We'll pull up and lead our team round."
In another minute Grant stepped out of his sleigh, and would have passed if Hetty had not stopped him. She sat higher than her companion, and probably knew that the Canadian blanket costume, with its scarlet trimmings, became her slender figure. The crimson toque also went well with the clustering dark hair and dark eyes, and there was a brightness in the latter which was in keeping with the colour the cold wind had brought into the delicate oval face. The man glanced at her a moment, and then apparently found that a trace required his attention.
"I am glad we met you, Larry," said the girl. "Flo thanked you the night you came to Cedar, and I wanted to, but, while you know why I couldn't, I would not like you to think it was very unkind of me. Whatever my father does is right, you see."
"Of course," said Grant gravely. "You have to believe it, Hetty."
Hetty's eyes twinkled. "That was very nice of you. Then you must be wrong."
"Well," said Grant, with a merry laugh, "it is quite likely that I am now and then. One can only do the best he can, and to be right all the time is a little too much to expect from any man."
Miss Schuyler, who was talking to Breckenridge, turned and smiled, and Hetty said, "Then, that makes it a little easier for me to admit that the folks I belong to go just a little too far occasionally. Larry, I hate to think of the little children going hungry. Are there many of them?"
Grant's face darkened for a moment. "I'm afraid there are quite a few—and sick ones, too, lying with about half enough to cover them in sod-hovels."
Hetty shuddered and her eyes grew pitiful, for since the grim early days hunger and want had been unknown in the cattle country. "If I want to do something for them it can't be very wrong," she said. "Larry, you will take a roll of bills from me, and buy them whatever will make it a little less hard for them?"
"No," said Grant quietly, "I can't, Hetty. Your father gives you that money, and we have our own relief machinery."
The girl laid her hand upon his arm appealingly. "I have a little my mother left me, and it was hers before she married my father. Can't you understand? I am with my father, and would not lift my finger to help you and the homestead-boys against him, but it couldn't do anybody any harm if I sent a few things to hungry children. You have just got to take those dollars, Larry."
"Then I dare not refuse," said Grant, after thinking a moment. "They need more than we can give them. But you can't send me the dollars."
"No," said Hetty, "and I have none with me now. But if a responsible man came to the bluff to-morrow night at eight o'clock, my maid could slip down with the wallet—you must not come. It would be too dangerous. My father, and one or two of the rest, are very bitter against you."
"Well," said Grant, smiling gravely, "a responsible man will be there. There are folks who will bless you, Hetty."
"You must never tell them, or anybody," the girl insisted.
Grant said nothing further, and led his team past; but Hetty noticed the shadow in his bronzed face and the wistfulness in his eyes. Then, she shook the reins, and as the horses plodded up the slope Miss Schuyler fancied that she sighed.
In the meanwhile Grant got into his sleigh, and Breckenridge, who had been vanquished by Miss Schuyler in an exchange of badinage, found him somewhat silent during the journey to Fremont ranch. He retired to rest soon after they reached it, and set out again before daylight the next morning, and it was late at night when he came back very weary, with his garments stiff with frost. The great bare room where Breckenridge awaited him was filled with a fusty heat, and as he came in, partly dazed by the change of temperature, Grant did not see the other man who sat amidst the tobacco-smoke beside the glowing stove. He sank into a hide chair limply, and when Breckenridge glanced at him inquiringly, with numbed fingers dragged a wallet out of his pocket.
"Yes," he said, "I got the dollars. I don't know that it was quite the square thing, but with Harper's wife and the Dutchman's children 'most starving in the hollow, I felt I had to take them."
Breckenridge made a little warning gesture, and the man behind the stove, reaching forward, picked up a packet that had dropped unnoticed by the rest when Grant took out the wallet.
"You seem kind of played out, Larry, and I guess you didn't know you dropped the thing," he said.
Grant blinked at him; for a man who has driven for many hours in the cold of the Northwest is apt to suffer from unpleasant and somewhat bewildering sensations when his numbed brain and body first throw off the effect of the frost.
"No," he said unevenly. "Let me alone a minute. I didn't see you."
The man, who was one of the homesteaders' leaders in another vicinity, sat still with the packet in his hand until, perhaps without any intention of reading it, his eyes rested on the address. Then he sat upright suddenly and stared at Grant.
"Do you know what you have got here, Larry?" he asked.
Grant stretched out his hand and took the packet, then laid it upon the table with the address downwards.
"It's something that dropped out of the wallet," he said.
The other man laughed a little, but his face was intent. "Oh, yes, that's quite plain; but if I know the writing it's a letter with something in it from Torrance to the Sheriff. There's no mistaking the way he makes the 'g.' Turn it over and I'll show you."
Grant laid a brown hand on the packet. "No. Do you generally look at letters that don't belong to you, Chilton?"
Breckenridge saw that Grant was recovering, and that the contemptuous manner of his question was intentional, and guessed that his comrade had intended to sting the other man to resentment, and so lead him from the point at issue. Chilton coloured, but he persisted.
"Well," he said, "I guess that one belongs to the committee. I didn't mean to look at the thing, but, now I'm sure of it, I have to do what I can for the boys who made me their executive. I don't ask you how you got it, Larry."
"I got it by accident."
Chilton looked astonished, and almost incredulous. "Well, we needn't worry over that. The question is, what you're going to do with it?"
"I'm going to send it back."
Chilton made a gesture of impatience. "That's what you can't do. As we know, the cattle-men had a committee at Cedar a day or two ago, and now here's a packet stuffed with something going to the Sheriff. Doesn't it strike you yet that it's quite likely there's a roll of dollar bills and a letter telling him what he has to do inside it?"
"Well?" said Grant, seeing that he must face the issue sooner or later.
"We don't want their dollars, but that letter's worth a pile of them to us. We could get it printed by a paper farther east, with an article on it that would raise a howl from everybody. There are one or two of them quite ready for a chance of getting a slap at the legislature, while there's more than one man who would be glad to hawk it round the lobbies. Then his friends would have no more use for the Sheriff, and we might even get a commission sent down to straighten things up for us."
"The trouble is that we can't make any use of it," said Grant.
"No?" said Chilton, and the men looked at each other steadily.
"No," repeated Grant. "It wasn't meant that I should get it, and I'm going to send it back."
"Then, while I don't want to make trouble, I'll have to mention the thing to my committee."
"You'll do just what you believe is right. Any way, we'll have supper now. It will be ready."
Chilton stood still a moment. "You are quite straight with us in this?"
"Yes," said Grant, "but I'm not going to give you that letter. Are you coming in to supper? It really wouldn't commit you to anything."
"I am," said Chilton simply. "I have known you quite a long while, and your assurance is good enough for me; but you would have found it difficult to make other folks believe you."
They sat down at table, and Larry smiled as he said, "It's the first time I have seen your scruples spoil your appetite, Chilton, but I had a notion that you were not quite sure about taking any supper from me."
"Well," laughed Chilton, "that just shows how foolish a man can be, because the supper's already right here inside me. When I came in Breckenridge got it for me. Still, I have driven a long way, and I can worry through another."
He made a very creditable attempt, and when he had been shown to his room Grant glanced at Breckenridge.
"You know how I got the letter?"
"Yes," said Breckenridge. "Miss Torrance must have inadvertently slipped it into the wallet. You couldn't have done anything else, Larry; but the affair is delicate and will want some handling. How are you going to get the packet back?"
"Take it myself," Grant said quietly.
It was ten o'clock the next night, and Hetty Torrance and Miss Schuyler sat talking in their little sitting-room. Torrance was away, but his married foreman, who had seen service in New Mexico, and his wife, slept in the house, and Cedar Range was strongly guarded. Now and then, the bitter wind set the door rattling, and there was a snapping in the stove; but when the gusts passed the ranch seemed very still, and Miss Schuyler could hear the light tread of the armed cow-boy who, perhaps to keep himself warm, paced up and down the hall below. There was another at a window in the corridor, and one or two more on guard in the stores and stables.
"Wasn't Chris Allonby to have come over to-day?" asked Miss Schuyler.
"Yes," said Hetty. "I'm sorry he didn't. I have a letter for the Sheriff to give him, and wanted to get rid of the thing. It is important, and I fancy, from what my father told me, if any of the homestead-boys got it they could make trouble for us. Chris is to ride in with it and hand it to the Sheriff."
"I wouldn't like a letter of that kind lying round," said Miss Schuyler. "Where did you put it, Hetty?"
Hetty laughed. "Where nobody would ever find it—under some clothes of mine. Talking about it makes one uneasy. Pull out the second drawer in the bureau, Flo."
Miss Schuyler did so, and Hetty turned over a bundle of daintily embroidered linen. Then, her face grew very grave, she laid each article back again separately.
"Nothing there!" said Miss Schuyler.
Hetty's fingers quivered. "Pull the drawer out, Flo. No. Never mind anything. Shake them out on the floor."
It was done, and a litter of garments lay scattered about them, but no packet appeared, and Hetty sat down limply, very white in the face.
"It was there," she said, "by the wallet with the dollars. It must have got inside somehow, and I sent the wallet to Larry. This is horrible, Flo."
"Think!" said Miss Schuyler. "You couldn't have put it anywhere else?"
"No," said Hetty faintly. "If the wrong people got it, it would turn out the Sheriff and make an outcry everywhere. That is what I was told, though I don't know what it was about."
"Still, you know it would be safe with Mr. Grant."
"Yes," said Hetty. "Larry never did anything mean in his life. But you don't understand, Flo. He didn't know it was there, and it might have dropped out on the prairie, while, even if he found it, how is he going to get it back to me? The boys would fire on him if he came here."
Flora Schuyler looked frightened. "You will have to tell your father, Hetty."
Hetty trembled a little. "It is going to be the hardest thing I ever did. He is just dreadful in his quietness when he is angry—and I would have to tell him I had been meeting Larry and sending him dollars. You know what he would fancy."
It was evident that Hetty was very much afraid of her father, and as clear to Miss Schuyler that the latter would have some cause for unpleasant suspicions. Then, the girl turned to her companion appealingly.
"Flo," she said, "tell me what to do. The thing frightens me."
Miss Schuyler slipped an arm about her. "Wait," she said. "Your father will not be here until noon to-morrow, and that letter is in the hands of a very honest man. I think you can trust him to get it back to you."
"But he couldn't send anybody without giving me away, and he knows it might cost him his liberty to come here," said Hetty.
"I scarcely fancy that would stop him."
Hetty turned, and looked at her friend curiously. "Flo, I wonder how it would have suited if Larry had been fond of you."
Miss Schuyler did not wince; but the smile that was on her lips was absent from her eyes. "You once told me I should have him. Are you quite sure you would like to hand him over now?"
Hetty did not answer the question; instead, she blushed furiously. "We are talking nonsense—and I don't know how I can face my father to-morrow," she said.
It was at least an hour later, and the cow-boy below had ceased his pacing, when Hetty, who felt no inclination for sleep, fancied she heard a tapping at the window. She sprang suddenly upright, and saw apprehension in Miss Schuyler's face. The cow-boys were some distance away, and a little verandah ran round that side of the house just below the window. Flora Schuyler had sufficient courage; but it was not of the kind which appears to advantage in the face of bodily peril, and the colour faded in her cheeks. It was quite certain now that somebody was tapping at or trying to open the window.
"Shake yourself together, Flo," said Hetty, in a hoarse whisper. "When I tell you, turn the lamp down and open the door. I am going to see who is there."
The next moment she had opened a drawer of the bureau, while as she stepped forward with something glinting in her hand, Flora Schuyler, who heard a whispered word, turned the lamp right out in her confusion, and, because she dared not stand still, crept after her companion. With a swift motion, Hetty drew the window-curtains back, and Miss Schuyler gasped. The stars were shining outside, and the dark figure of a man was silhouetted against the blue clearness of the night.
"Come back," she cried. "Oh, he's coming in. Hetty, I must scream."
Hetty's fingers closed upon her arm with a cruel grip. "Stop," she said. "If you do, they'll shoot him. Don't be a fool, Flo."
It was too dark to see clearly, but Flora Schuyler realized with a painful fluttering of her heart and a great relief whose the white face outside the window must be.
LARRY SOLVES THE DIFFICULTY
For the space of several seconds the girls stood staring at the figure outside the window. Then, the man turned sharply, and Hetty gasped as she heard the crunch of footsteps in the snow below. There was a little of it on the verandah, and the stars shone brilliantly.
"Catch hold of the frame here, Flo," she said breathlessly. "Now, push with all your might."
Miss Schuyler did as she was bidden. The double sashes moved with a sharp creaking, and while she shivered as the arctic cold struck through her, Hetty stretched out an arm and drew the man in. Then with a tremendous effort she shut the window and pulled the curtains together. There was darkness in the room now, and one of the cow-boys called out below.
"Hear anything, Jake?"
"Somebody shutting a door in the house there," said another man, and Hetty, passing between the curtains, could see two figures move across the snow, and the little scintillation from something that was carried by one of them, and she realized that they had very narrowly averted a tragedy.
"Flo," she said, with a little quiver in her voice, "light the lamp quick. If they see the room dark they might come up."
Miss Schuyler was unusually clumsy, but at last the light sprang up, and showed Larry standing just inside the curtain with the dust of snow on his fur coat and cap. His face looked a little less bronzed than usual, but he showed no other sign of discomposure. Hetty was very pale as she stood in front of him with the pistol still in her hand. She dropped it on a chair with a shiver, and broke into a little strained laugh.
"You are quite sure they didn't see you, Larry? You took a terrible risk just now."
Grant smiled, more with his lips than his eyes. "Yes," he said, "I guess I did. I taught you to shoot as well as most men, Hetty."
Hetty gasped again and sank limply into the nearest chair. "What brought you here?" she said. "Still, you can't get away now. Sit down, Larry."
Grant sat down with a bow to Miss Schuyler, and fumbled in the pocket of his big fur coat. "I came to give you something you sent me by mistake," he said. "I would not have come this way if I could have helped it, but I saw there was a man with a rifle every here and there as I crept up through the bluff, and it was quite a while before I could swing myself up by a pillar on to the verandah. You have been anxious about this, Hetty?"
He laid a packet on the table, and Hetty's eyes shone as she took it up.
"Couldn't you have given it to somebody to bring me? It would have been ever so much safer," she said.
"No," said the man simply, "I don't think I could."
Hetty understood him, and so did Miss Schuyler, while the meaning of the glance her companion cast at her was equally plain. Miss Torrance's face was still pallid, but there was pride in her eyes.
"I wonder if you guessed what was in that letter, Mr. Grant?" Flora Schuyler asked.
Larry smiled. "I think I have a notion."
"Of course!" said Hetty impulsively. "We knew you had, and that was why we felt certain you would try to bring it back to me."
"If it could have been managed in a different fashion it would have pleased me better," Grant said, with a little impatient gesture. "I am sorry I frightened you, Hetty."
The colour crept back into Hetty's cheeks. "I was frightened, but only just a little at first," she said. "It was when I saw who it was and heard the boys below, that I grew really anxious."
She did not look at the man as she spoke; but it was evident to Miss Schuyler that he understood the significance of the avowal.
"Then," he said, "I must try to get away again more quietly."
"You can't," said Hetty. "Not until the man by the store goes away. You have taken too many chances already. You have driven a long way in the cold. Take off that big coat, and Flo will make you some coffee."
Grant, turning, drew the curtains aside a moment, and let them fall back again. Then, he took off the big coat and sat down with a little smile of contentment beside the glowing stove on which Miss Schuyler was placing a kettle.
"Well," he said, "I am afraid you will have to put up with my company until that fellow goes away; and I need not tell you that this is very nice for me. One hasn't much time to feel it, but it's dreadfully lonely at Fremont now and then."
Hetty nodded sympathetically, for she had seen the great desolate room at Fremont where Grant and Breckenridge passed the bitter nights alone. The man's half-audible sigh was also very expressive, for after his grim life he found the brightness and daintiness of the little room very pleasant. It was sparely furnished; but there was taste in everything, and in contrast with Fremont its curtains, rugs, and pictures seemed luxurious. Without were bitter frost and darkness, peril, and self-denial; within, warmth and refinement, and the companionship of two cultured women who were very gracious to him. He also knew that he had shut himself out from the enjoyment of their society of his own will, that he had but to make terms with Torrance, and all that one side of his nature longed for might be restored to him.
Larry was as free from sensuality as he was from asceticism; but there were times when the bleak discomfort at Fremont palled upon him, as did the loneliness and half-cooked food. His overtaxed body revolted now and then from further exposure to Arctic cold and the deprivation of needed sleep, while his heart grew sick with anxiety and the distrust of those he was toiling for. He was not a fanatic, and had very slight sympathy with the iconoclast, for he had an innate respect for the law, and vague aspirations after an ampler life made harmonious by refinement, as well as a half-comprehending reverence for all that was best in art and music. There are many Americans like him, and when such a man turns reformer he has usually a hard row, indeed, to hoe.
"What do you do up there at nights?" asked Hetty.
Larry laughed. "Sometimes Breckenridge and I sit talking by the stove, and now and then we quarrel. Breckenridge has taste, and generally smooths one the right way; but there are times when I feel like throwing things at him. Then we sit quite still for hours together listening to the wind moaning, until one of the boys comes in to tell me we are wanted, and it is a relief to drive until morning with the frost at fifty below. It is very different from the old days when I was here and at Allonby's two or three nights every week."
"It must have been hard to give up what you did," said Hetty, with a diffidence that was unusual in her. "Oh, I know you did it willingly, but you must have found it was very different from what you expected. I mean that the men you wanted to smooth the way for had their notions too, and meant to do a good deal that could never please you. Suppose you found they didn't want to go along quietly, making this country better, but only to trample down whatever was there already?"
Flora Schuyler looked up. "I think you will have to face that question, Mr. Grant," she said. "A good many men of your kind have had to do it before you. Isn't a faulty ruler better than wild disorder?"
"Yes," said Hetty eagerly. "That is just what I mean. If you saw they wanted anarchy, Larry, you would come back to us? We should be glad to have you!"
The man turned his eyes away, and Flora Schuyler saw his hands quiver.
"No," he said. "I and the rest would have to teach them what was good for them, and if it was needful try to hold them in. Whatever they did, we who brought them here would have to stand in with them."
Hetty accepted the decision in his tone, and sighed. "Well," she said, "we will forget it; and Flo has the coffee ready. That is yours, Larry, and here's a box of crackers. Now, we'll try to think of pleasant things. It's like our old-time picnics. Doesn't it remind you of the big bluff—only we had a black kettle then, and you made the fire of sticks? There was the day you shot the willow grouse. It isn't really so very long ago!"
"It seems years," said the man, wistfully. "So much has happened since."
"Well," said Hetty, "I can remember all of it still—the pale blue sky behind the bluff, with the little curl of grey smoke floating up against it. You sat by the fire, Larry, roasting the grouse, and talking about what could be done with the prairie. It was all white in the sunshine, and empty as far as one could see, but you told me it would be a great red wheat-field by and by. I laughed at you for dreaming things that couldn't be, but we were very happy that day."
Grant's face was very sad for a moment, but he turned to Miss Schuyler with a little smile. "Hetty is leaving you out," he said.
"I wasn't there, you see," Miss Schuyler said quickly. "Those days belong to you and Hetty."
Hetty glanced at her sharply, and fancied there was a slightly strained expression in the smiling face, but the next moment Miss Schuyler laughed.
"What are you thinking, Flo?" said Hetty.
"It was scarcely worth mentioning. I was wondering how it was that the only times we have crossed the bridge we met Mr. Grant."
"That's quite simple," said Larry. "Each time it was on Wednesday, and I generally drive round to see if I am wanted anywhere that day. They have had to do almost without provisions at the homesteads in the hollow lately. Your dollars will be very welcome, Hetty."
Hetty blushed for no especial reason, except that when Grant mentioned Wednesday she felt that Flora Schuyler's eyes were upon her. Then, a voice rose up below.
"Hello! All quiet, Jake?"
There were footsteps in the snow outside, and when the sentry answered, the words just reached those who listened in the room.
"I had a kind of notion I saw something moving in the bluff, but I couldn't be quite sure," he said. "There was a door or window banged up there on the verandah a while ago, but that must have been done by one of the women in the house."
Grant rose and drew back the curtain, when, after a patter of footsteps, the voices commenced again.
"Somebody has come in straight from the bluff," said one of the men. "You can see where he has been, but I'm blamed if I can figure where he went to unless it was up the post into the verandah, and he couldn't have done that without Miss Torrance hearing him. I'll stop right here, any way, and I wish my two hours were up."
"I'm that stiff I can scarcely move," said the man relieved, and there was silence in the room, until Hetty turned to the others in dismay.
"He is going to stay there two hours, and he would see us the moment we opened the window," she said.
Grant quickly put on his big fur coat, and unnoticed, he fancied, slipped one hand down on something that was girded on the belt beneath it.
"I must get away at once—through the house," he said.
Hetty had, however, seen the swift motion of his hand.
"There's a man with a rifle in the hall," she said, shudderingly. "Flo, can't you think of something?"
Flora Schuyler looked at them quietly. "I fancy it would not be very difficult for Mr. Grant to get away, but the trouble is that nobody must know he has been near the place. That is the one thing your father could not forgive, Hetty."
Hetty turned her head a little, but Grant nodded. "Had it been otherwise I should have gone an hour ago," he said.
"Well," said Flora Schuyler, with a curious look in her face, "while I fancy we can get you away unnoticed, if anybody did see you, it needn't appear quite certain that it was any affair with Hetty that brought you."
"No?" said Hetty, very sharply. "What do you mean, Flo?"
Miss Schuyler smiled a little and looked Grant in the eyes. "What would appear base treachery in Hetty's case would be less astonishing in me. Mr. Grant, you must not run risks again to talk to me, but since you have done it I must see you through. You are sure there is only one cow-boy in the hall, Hetty?"
Hetty turned and looked at them. Flora Schuyler was smiling bravely, the man standing still with grave astonishment in his eyes.
"No," she said, with quick incisiveness, "I can't let you, Flo."
"I don't think I asked your permission," said Miss Schuyler. "Could you explain this to your father, Hetty? I believe he would not be angry with me. Adventurous gallantry is, I understand, quite approved of on the prairie. Call your maid. Mr. Grant, will you come with me?"
For several seconds Hetty stood silent, recognizing that what Torrance might smile at in his guest would appear almost a crime in his daughter, but still horribly unwilling. Then, as Flora Schuyler, with a half-impatient gesture, signed to Grant, she touched a little gong, and a few moments later her maid met them in the corridor. The girl stopped suddenly, gasping a little as she stared at Grant, until Hetty grasped her arm, nipping it cruelly.
"If you scream or do anything silly you will be ever so sorry," she said. "Go down into the hall and talk to Jo. Keep him where the stove is, with his back to the door."
"But how am I to do it?" the girl asked.
"Take him something to eat," Miss Schuyler said impatiently. "Any way, it should not be hard to fool him—I have seen him looking at you. Now, I wonder if that grey dress of mine would fit you—I have scarcely had it on, but it's a little too tight for me."
The girl's eyes glistened, she moved swiftly down the corridor, Flora Schuyler laughed, and Grant looked away.
"Larry," said Hetty, "it isn't just what one would like—but I am afraid it is necessary."
Five minutes later Hetty moved across the hall, making a little noise, so that the cow-boy, who stood near the other end of it, with the maid close by him, should notice her. She softly opened the outer door, and then came back and signed to Grant and Flora Schuyler, who stood waiting in the corridor.
"No," he said, and the lamplight showed a darker hue than the bronze of frost and sun in his face. "Miss Schuyler, I have never felt quite so mean before, and you will leave the rest to me."
"It seems to me," she said coolly, "that what you feel does not count for much. Just now you have to do what is best for everybody. Stoop as low as you can."
She stretched out her hand with a little imperious gesture, and laid it on his arm, drawing herself up to her full height as she stood between him and the light. They moved forward together, and Hetty closed her hand as she watched them pass into the hall. The end was dim and shadowy, for the one big lamp that was lighted stood some distance away by the stove, where the man on watch was talking to the maid. Hetty realized that the girl was playing her part well as she saw her make a swift step backwards, and heard the man's low laugh.
Flora Schuyler and Grant were not far from the door now, the girl walking close to her companion. In another moment they would have passed out of sight into the shadow, but while Hetty felt her fingers trembling, the man on watch, perhaps hearing their footsteps, turned round.
"Hallo!" he said. "It seems kind of cold. What can Miss Schuyler want with opening the door? Is that Miss Torrance behind her?"
He moved forward a pace, apparently not looking where he was going, but towards the door, and might have moved further, but that the maid swiftly stretched out one foot, and a chair with the tray laid on it went over with a crash.
"Now there's going to be trouble. See what you've done," she said.
The man stopped, staring at the wreck upon the floor.
"Well," he said, "I'm blamed if I touched the thing. What made it fall over, any way?"
"Pick them up," the girl said sharply. "You don't want to make trouble for me!"
He stooped, and Hetty gasped with relief as she saw him carefully scraping some dainty from the floor, for just then one of the two figures slipped away from the other, and there was a sound that might have been made by a softly closing door. The cow-boy looked up quickly, and saw Miss Torrance and Miss Schuyler standing close together, then stood up as they came towards him. Hetty paused and surveyed the overturned crockery, and then, though her heart was throbbing painfully, gave the man a glance of ironical inquiry. He looked at the maid as if for inspiration, but she stood meekly still, the picture of bashful confusion.
"I'm quite sorry, Miss Torrance," he said. "The concerned thing went over."
Hetty laughed. "Well," she said, "it's a very cold night, and Lou can get you some more supper. She is, however, not to stay here a minute after she has given it you."
She went out with Miss Schuyler, and the two stood very silent by a window in the corridor. One of them fancied she saw a shadowy object slip round the corner of a barn, but could not be sure, and for five very long minutes they stared at the faintly shining snow. Nothing moved upon it, and save for the maid's voice in the hall, the great building was very still. Hetty touched Miss Schuyler's arm.
"He has got away," she said. "Come back with me. I don't feel like standing up any longer."
They sat down limply when they returned to the little room, and though Miss Schuyler did not meet her companion's gaze, there was something that did not seem to please the latter in her face.
"Flo," she said, "one could almost fancy you felt it as much as I did. It was awfully nice of you."
Miss Schuyler smiled, though there was a tension in her voice. "Of course I felt it," she said. "Hetty, I'd watch that maid of yours. She's too clever."
Hetty said nothing for a moment, then, suddenly crossing the room, she stooped down and kissed Miss Schuyler.
"I have never met any one who would do as much for me as you would, Flo," she said. "I don't think there is anything that could come between us."
There was silence for another moment, and during it Miss Schuyler looked steadily into Hetty's eyes. "No," she said, "although you do not seem quite sure, I don't think there is."
It was early the next morning when Christopher Allonby arrived at the Range. He smiled as he glanced at the packet Hetty handed him.
"I have never seen your father anything but precise," he said.
"Has anything led you to fancy that he has changed?" asked Hetty.
Allonby laughed as he held out the packet. "The envelope is all creased and crumpled. It might have been carried round for ever so long in somebody's pocket. Now, I know you don't smoke, Hetty."
"There is no reason why I should not, but, as it happens, I don't," said Miss Torrance.
"Then, the packet has a most curious, cigar-like smell," said Allonby, smiling. "Now, I don't think Mr. Torrance carries loose cigars and letters about with him together. I wonder what deduction one could make from this."
Hetty glanced at Miss Schuyler. "You could never make the right one, Chris," she said.
Allonby said nothing further and went out with the letter; a day or two later he handed it to the Sheriff.
"I guess you know what's inside it?" said the latter.
"Yes," said the lad. "I want to see you count them now."
The Sheriff glanced at him sharply, took out a roll of bills and flicked them over.
"Yes," he said, "that's quite right; but one piece of what I have to do is going to be difficult."
"Which?" said Allonby.
"Well," said the Sheriff, "I guess you know. I mean the getting hold of Larry."
One afternoon several days later, Christopher Allonby drove over to Cedar Range, and, though he endeavoured to hide his feelings, was evidently disconcerted when he discovered that Miss Schuyler and Hetty were alone. Torrance had affairs of moment on hand just then, and was absent from Cedar Range frequently.
"One could almost have fancied you were not pleased to see us, and would sooner have talked to Mr. Torrance," said Miss Schuyler.
The lad glanced at her reproachfully.
"Hetty knows how diffident I am, but it seems to me a lady with your observation should have seen the gratification I did not venture to express."
"It was not remarkably evident," said Miss Schuyler. "In fact, when you heard Mr. Torrance was not here I fancied I saw something else."
"I was thinking," said Allonby, "wondering how I could be honest and, at the same time, complimentary to everybody. It was quite difficult. People like me generally think of the right thing afterwards, you see."
Hetty shook her head. "Sit down, and don't talk nonsense, Chris," she said. "You shouldn't think too much; when you're not accustomed to it, it isn't wise. What brought you?"
"I had a message for your father," said the lad, and Flora Schuyler fancied she saw once more the signs of embarrassment in his face.
"Then," said Hetty, "you can tell it me."
"There's a good deal of it, and it's just a little confusing," said Allonby.
Flora Schuyler glanced at Hetty, and then smiled at the lad. "That is certainly not complimentary," she said. "Don't you think Hetty and I could remember anything that you can?"
Allonby laughed. "Of course you could. But, I had my instructions. I was told to give Mr. Torrance the message as soon as I could, without troubling anybody."
"Then it is of moment?"
"Yes. That is, we want him to know, though there's really nothing in it that need worry anybody."
"Then, it is unfortunate that my father is away," said Hetty.
Allonby sat silent a moment or two, apparently reflecting, and then looked up suddenly, as though he had found the solution of the difficulty.
"I could write him."
Hetty laughed. "That was an inspiration! You can be positively brilliant, Chris. You will find paper and special envelopes in the office, as well as a big stick of sealing-wax."
Allonby, who appeared unable to find a neat rejoinder, went out; and when he left Flora Schuyler smiled as she saw the carefully fastened envelope lying on Torrance's desk, as well as something else. Torrance was fastidiously neat, and the blotting pad from which the soiled sheets had been removed bore the impress of Christopher Allonby's big, legible writing. It was, however, a little blurred, and Miss Schuyler, who had her scruples, made no attempt to read it then. It was the next afternoon, and Torrance had not yet returned, when a mounted man rode up to the Range, and was shown into the room where the girls sat together.
"Mr. Clavering will be kind of sorry Mr. Torrance wasn't here, but he has got it fixed quite straight," he said.
"What has he fixed?" said Hetty.
"Well," said the man, "your father knows, and I don't, though I've a kind of notion we are after one of the homestead-boys. Any way, what I had to tell him was this. He could ride over to the Cedar Bluff at about six this evening with two or three of the boys, if it suited him, but if it didn't, Mr. Clavering would put the thing through."
Hetty asked one or two leading questions, but the man had evidently nothing more to tell, and when he went out, the two girls looked at one another in silence. Hetty's eyes were anxious and her face more colourless than usual.
"Flo," she said sharply, "are we thinking the same thing?"
"I don't know," said Miss Schuyler. "You have not told me your notions yet. Still, this is clear to both of us, Mr. Clavering expects to meet somebody at the Cedar Bluff, and your father is to bring two or three men with him. The question is, what could they be wanted for?"
"No," said Hetty, with a little quiver in her voice, "it is who they expect to meet. You know what day this is?"
Once more there was silence for a few seconds, but the thoughts of the two girls were unconcealed now, and when she spoke Hetty closed her hand.
"Think, Flo. There must be no uncertainty." Miss Schuyler slipped out of the room and when she came back she brought an envelope, splashed with red wax, on a blotting-pad.
"There's the key. All is fair—in war!" she said.
A pink tinge crept into Hetty's cheeks, and a sparkle into her eyes as she looked at her companion.
"Don't make me angry with you, Flo," she said. "We can't read it."
"No?" said Miss Schuyler quietly, holding up the pad. "Now I think we can. This is another manifestation of the superiority of the masculine mind. Give me your hand-glass, Hetty."
"Of course," said Hetty, with a little gasp. "Still—it's horribly mean."
There was a slightly contemptuous hardness in Flora Schuyler's eyes. "If you let the man who rides by the bluff on Wednesdays fall into Clavering's hands, it would be meaner still."
The next moment Hetty was out of the room, and Miss Schuyler sat down with a face that had grown suddenly weary. But it betrayed nothing when Hetty came back with the glass, and when she held up the blotter in hands that were perfectly steady, they read:
"I have fixed it with the Sheriff. Clavering's boys had, as you guessed, been watching for Larry on the wrong day; but now we have found out it is Wednesday we'll make sure of him. If you care to come around to the bluff about six that night, you will probably see us seize him; but if you would sooner stand out in this case, it wouldn't count. We don't expect any difficulty."
Hetty flushed crimson. "Flo," she said, "it was the letter arranging his own arrest he brought me back."
"That is not the point," said Miss Schuyler sharply. "What are you going to do?"
Hetty laughed mockingly. "You and I are going to drive over to the Newcombes and stay the night. You get nervous when my father is away. But we are not going there quite straight; and you had better put your warmest things on."
An hour later two of the best horses in Torrance's stable drew the lightest sleigh up to the door, and Miss Schuyler turned with a smile to the remonstrating housekeeper.
"Nothing would induce me to stay here another night when Mr. Torrance was away," she said. "You can tell him that, if he is vexed with Hetty, and you needn't worry. We will be safe at Mrs. Newcombe's before an hour is over."
The housekeeper shook her head. "I guess not. It's a league round by the bridge, and you couldn't find the other trail in the dark."
Miss Schuyler laughed. "Then, look at the time, and we'll let you know when we get there," she said.
Hetty whipped the team, and with a whirling of dusty snow beneath the runners, they swept away. Both sat silent, until the beat of hoofs rang amidst the trees as they swept through the gloom of the big bluff at a gallop, and Hetty laughed excitedly.
"Hold fast, Flo. You did that very well; but we have our alibi to prove, and are not going near the bridge," she said.
She flicked the horses, and the trees swept away behind them and the long white levels rolled back faster yet to the drumming hoofs. The rush of cold wind stung Miss Schuyler's face like the lash of a whip, her eyes grew hazy, and she held the furs about her as she swayed with the lurching of the sleigh. Darkness was closing in when they came to the forking of the trail, and, with a little cry of warning, Hetty lashed the team. The lurches grew sharper, and Miss Schuyler gasped now and then as she felt the sleigh swing rocking down a long declivity. Scattered birches raced up out of it, and the hammering beat of hoofs swelled into a roar as it rolled along a thicker belt of trees.
They rose higher and higher, a dusky wall athwart the way, and Miss Schuyler felt for a better hold for her feet, and grasped the big strapped robe as she looked in vain for any opening. That team had done nothing for more than a week, and there was no stinting of oats and maize at Cedar. Hetty, however, did not attempt to hold them, but sat swaying to the jolting, leaning forward as the shadowy barrier rushed up towards them, until, before she quite realized how they got there, Miss Schuyler found herself hurled forward down what appeared to be a steadily sloping tunnel. Dim trees swept by and drooping boughs lashed at her. Now and then there was a sharp crackling or a sickening lurch, and still they sped on furiously, until a faint white shining appeared ahead.
"What is it?" she gasped.
"The river," said Hetty. "Hold fast! There's a piece like a toboggan-leap quite near."
She flung herself backwards as the lace-like birch twigs smote her furs; and when one of the horses stumbled Miss Schuyler with difficulty stifled a cry. The beast, however, picked up its stride again, there was a lurch, and the rocking sleigh appeared to leap clear of the snow. A crash followed, and they were flying out of the shadow again across a strip of faintly shining plain with another belt of dusky trees rolling back towards them. Beyond them, low in the soft indigo, a pale star was shining. Hetty glanced at it as she shook the reins, and once more something in her laugh stirred Miss Schuyler.
"I know when that star comes out," she said. "If Larry's only there we can warn him and make our ride on time."
In another minute they were in among the trees, and Hetty, springing down, plodded through the loose snow at the horses' heads, urging them with hand and voice up the incline which wound tortuously into the darkness. Now and then, one of them stumbled, and there was a great trampling of hoofs, but the girl's mittened hand never loosed its grasp; and it was with a little breathless run she clutched the sleigh and swung herself in when the team swept out on the level again. Still, at least a minute had passed before she had the horses in hand. The trail forked again somewhere in the dimness they were flashing through, and it was difficult to see the dusky smear at all.
A lurch that flung Miss Schuyler against her showed that Hetty had found the turning; and a little later, with a struggle, she checked the team, and they slid behind one of the low, rolling rises that seamed the prairie here and there. There was no wind in the hollow behind it and a great stillness under the high vault of blue studded with twinkling stars. The dim whiteness of a long ridge cut sharply against it, and the pale colouring and frosty glitter conveyed the suggestion of pitiless cold. Flora Schuyler shivered, and drew the furs closer round her.
"Is this the place?" she asked.
"Yes," said Hetty, with a little gasp. "If we don't meet him here he will have passed or gone by the other trail, and it will be too late to stop him. Can you hear anything, Flo?"
Miss Schuyler strained her ears, but, though the horses were walking now, she could hear nothing. The deep silence round them was emphasized by the soft trample of the hoofs and thin jingle of steel that seemed unreal and out of place there in the wilderness of snow and stars.
"No," she said, in a strained voice; "I can hear nothing at all. It almost makes one afraid to listen."
They drove slowly for a minute or two, and then Hetty pulled up the team. "I can't go on, and it is worse to stand still," she said. "Flo, if he didn't stop—and he wouldn't—they would shoot him. He must be coming. Listen. There's a horrible buzzing in my ears—I can't hear at all."
Miss Schuyler listened for what appeared an interminable time, and wondered afterwards that she had borne the tension without a sign. The great stillness grew overwhelming now the team had stopped, and there was that in the utter cold and sense of desolation that weighed her courage down. She felt her insignificance in the face of that vast emptiness and destroying frost, and wondered at the rashness of herself and Hetty and Larry Grant who had ventured to believe they could make any change in the great inexorable scheme of which everything that was to be was part. Miss Schuyler was not fanciful, but during the last hour she had borne a heavy strain, and the deathly stillness of the northwestern waste under the Arctic frost is apt to leave its impress on the most unimaginative.
Suddenly very faint and far off, a rhythmic throbbing crept out of the darkness, and Flora Schuyler, who, fearing her ears had deceived her at first, dared not speak, felt her chilled blood stir when Hetty flung back her head.
"Flo—can't you hear it? Tell me!"
Miss Schuyler nodded, for she could not trust her voice just then; but the sound had grown louder while she listened and now it seemed flung back by the rise. Then, she lost it altogether as Hetty shook the reins and the sleigh went on again. In a few minutes, however, there was an answer to the thud of hoofs, and another soft drumming that came quivering through it sank and swelled again. By and by a clear, musical jingling broke in, and at last, when a moving object swung round a bend of the rise, a voice that rang harsh and commanding reached them.
"Pull right up there, and wait until we see who you are," it said.
"Larry!" cried Hetty; and the second time her strained voice broke and died away. "Larry!"
It was less than a minute later when a sleigh stopped close in front of them, and, leaving one man in it, Grant sprang stiffly down. It took Hetty a minute or two more to make her warning plain, and Miss Schuyler found it necessary to put in a word of amplification occasionally. Then, Grant signed to the other man.
"Will you drive Miss Schuyler slowly in the direction she was going, Breckenridge?" he said. "Hetty, I want to talk to you, and can't keep you here."
Hetty was too cold to reflect, and, almost before she knew how he had accomplished it, found herself in Grant's sleigh and the man piling the robes about her. When he wheeled the horses she was only conscious that he was very close to her and that Breckenridge and Miss Schuyler were driving slowly a little distance in front of them. Then, glancing up, as though under compulsion, she saw that Grant was looking down upon her.
"It is not what I meant to tell you, but doesn't this remind you of old times, Hetty?" he said.
"I don't want to remember them—and what have they to do with what concerns us now?" said the girl.
There was a new note in the man's voice that was almost exultant in its quietness. "A good deal, I think. Hetty, if you hadn't driven so often beside me here, would you have done what you have to-night?"
"No," said the girl tremulously.
"No," Grant said. "You have done a rash as well as a very generous thing."
"It was rash; but what could I do? We were, as you remind me, good friends once."
"Yes," he said. "I can't thank you, Hetty—thanks of any kind wouldn't be adequate—and there is nothing else I can offer to show my gratitude, because all I had was yours already. You have known that a long while, haven't you?"
The girl looked away from him. "I was not good enough to understand its value at first, and when I did I tried to make you take it back."
"I couldn't," he said gently. "It was perhaps worth very little; but it was all I had, and—since that day by the river—I never asked for anything in return. It was very hard not to now and then, but I saw that you had only kindness to spare for me."
"Then why do you talk of it again?"
"I think," said Grant very quietly, "it is different now. After to-night nothing can be quite the same again. Hetty, dear, if you had missed me and I had ridden on to the bridge——"
"Stop!" said the girl with a shiver. "I dare not think of it. Larry, can't you see that just now you must not talk in that strain to me?"
"But there is a difference?" and Grant looked at her steadily.
For a moment the girl returned his gaze, her face showing very white in the faint light flung up by the snow; but she sat very straight and still, and the man's passion suddenly fell from him.
"Yes," she said softly, "there is. I was only sure of it when I fancied I had missed you a few minutes ago; but that can't affect us, Larry. We can neither of us go back on those we belong to, and I know how mean I was when I tried to tempt you. You were staunch, and if I were less so, you would not respect me."
Grant sighed. "You still believe your father right?"
"Yes," said Hetty. "I must hope so; and if he is wrong, I still belong to him."
"But you can believe that I am right, too?"
"Yes," said Hetty simply. "I am, at least, certain you think you are. Still, it may be a long and bitter while before we see this trouble through. I have done too much to-night—that is, had it been for anyone but you—and you will not make my duty too hard for me."
Larry's pulses were throbbing furiously; but he had many times already checked the passionate outbreak that he knew would have banished any passing tenderness the girl had for him.
"No, my dear," he said. "But the trouble can't last for ever, and when it is over you will come to me? I have been waiting—even when I felt it was hopeless—year after year for you."
Hetty smiled gravely. "Whether I shall ever be able to do that, Larry, neither you nor I can tell; but at least I shall never listen to anyone else. That is all I can promise; and we must go on, each of us doing what is put before us, and hoping for the best."
Larry swept off his fur cap, and, stooping, kissed her on the cheek. "It is the first time, Hetty. I will wait patiently for the next; but I shall see you now and then?"
The girl showed as little sign of resentment as she did of passion. "If I meet you; but that must come by chance," she said. "I want you to think the best of me, and if the time should come, I know I would be proud of you. You have never done a mean thing since I knew you, Larry, and that means a good deal now."
Grant pulled the team up in silence, and called to Breckenridge, who checked his horses and getting down looked straight in front of him as his comrade handed Hetty into her sleigh. Then they stood still, saying nothing while the team swept away.
Hetty was also silent, though she drove furiously, and Flora Schuyler did not consider it advisable to ask any questions, while the rush of icy wind and rocking of the sleigh afforded scanty opportunity for conversation. She was also very cold, and greatly relieved, when a blink of light rose out of the snow. Five minutes later somebody handed her out of the sleigh, and she saw a man glance at the team.
"You have been sending them along. Was it you or Hetty who drove, Miss Schuyler?" he said.
Flora Schuyler laughed. "Hetty, of course; but I want you to remember when we came in," she said, mentioning when they left Cedar. "I told Mrs. Ashley we would get here inside an hour, and she wouldn't believe me."
"If anyone wants to know when you came in, send them to me," said the man. "There are not many horses that could have made it in the time."
A FUTILE PURSUIT
Hetty's sleigh was sliding, a dim moving shadow, round a bend in the rise when Breckenridge touched his comrade, who stood gazing silently across the prairie.
"It's abominably cold, Larry," he said, with a shiver. "Hadn't we better get on?"
Grant said nothing as he took his place on the driving-seat, and the team had plodded slowly along the trail for at least five minutes before he spoke.
"You heard what Miss Torrance told me?" he said.
"Yes," Breckenridge said. "I notice, however, we are still heading for the bridge. Can't you cross the ice, Larry?"
"If I wanted to I fancy I could."
"Then why don't you?"
Grant laughed. "Well," he said, "there's only one trail through the bluff, and it's not the kind I'm fond of driving over in the dark."
Breckenridge twisted in his seat, and looked at him. "Pshaw!" he said. "It would be a good deal less risky than meeting the Sheriff at the bridge. You are not going to do anything senseless, Larry?"
"No; only what seems necessary."
Breckenridge considered. "Now," he said slowly, "I can guess what you're thinking, and, of course, it's commendable; but one has to be reasonable. Is there anything that could excite the least suspicion that Miss Torrance warned you?"
"There are two or three little facts that only need putting together."
"Still, if we called at Muller's and drove home by the other trail it wouldn't astonish anybody."
"It would appear a little too much of a coincidence in connection with the fact that Miss Torrance and I were known to be good friends, and the time she left Cedar. As the cattle-men have evidently found out, I have crossed the bridge at about the same time every Wednesday; and two of the cow-boys saw us near Harper's."
"Larry," said Breckenridge, "if you were merely one of the rest your intentions would no doubt become you, but the point is that every homesteader round here is dependent on you. If you went down, the opposition to the cattle-men would collapse, or there would be general anarchy, and that is precisely why Torrance and the Sheriff are anxious to get their hands on you. Now, doesn't it strike you that it's your plain duty to keep clear of any unnecessary peril?"
Grant shook his head. "No," he said. "It seems to me that argument has quite frequently accounted for a good deal of meanness. It is tolerably presumptuous for any man to consider himself indispensable."
"Well," said Breckenridge, divided between anger and approval, "I have found out already that it's seldom any use trying to convince you, but each time you made this round I've driven with you, and it's quite obvious that if one of us crossed the bridge it would suit the purpose. Now, I don't think the Sheriff could rake up very much against me."
Grant laid his hand on the lad's shoulder. "I'm going to cross the bridge, but I don't purpose that either of us should fall into the Sheriff's clutches," he said. "You saw what Jardine's glass had gone down to?"
Breckenridge nodded. "It dropped like that before the last blizzard we had."
Grant turned and looked about him, and Breckenridge shivered as he followed his gaze. They had driven out from behind the rise now and a bitter wind met them in the face. There was not very much of it as yet, but all feeling seemed to die out of the lad's cheeks under it, and it brought a little doleful moaning out of the darkness. Behind them stars shone frostily in the soft indigo, but elsewhere a deepening obscurity was creeping up across the prairie, and sky and snow were blurred and merged one into the other.
"There's one meaning to that," said Grant. "We'll have snow in an hour or two, and when it comes it's going to be difficult to see anything. In the meanwhile, we'll drive round by Busby's and get our supper while the cow-boys cool. The man who hangs around a couple of hours doing nothing in a frost of this kind is not to be relied upon when he's wanted in a hurry."
He flicked the horses, and in half an hour the pair were sitting in a lonely log-house beside a glowing stove while its owner prepared a meal. Two other men with bronzed faces sat close by, and Breckenridge fancied he had never seen his comrade so cheerful. His cares seemed to have fallen from him, his laugh had a pleasant ring, and there was something in his eyes which had not been there for many weary months. Breckenridge wondered whether it could be due to anything Miss Torrance had said to him, but kept his thoughts to himself, for that was a subject upon which one could not ask questions.
In the meanwhile, Clavering and the Sheriff found the time pass much less pleasantly—on the bluff. The wind that whistled through it grew colder as one by one the stars faded out, and there was a mournful wailing amidst the trees. Now and then, a shower of twigs came rattling down from branches dried to brittleness by the frost, and the Sheriff brushed them off disgustedly, as, huddling lower in the sleigh from which the horses had been taken out, he packed the robes round him. He had lived softly, and it would have suited him considerably better to have spent that bitter evening in the warmth and security of Clavering's ranch.
"No sign of him yet?" he said, when Christopher Allonby and Clavering came up together. "Larry will stay at home to-night. He has considerably more sense than we seem to have."
"I have seen nothing," said Allonby, who, in the hope of restoring his circulation, had walked up the trail. "Still, the night is getting thicker, and nobody could make a sleigh out until it drove right up to him."
"If Larry did come, you could hear him," said the Sheriff.
Allonby lifted his hand, and, as if to supply the answer, with a great thrashing of frost-nipped twigs the birches roared about them. The blast that lashed them also hurled the icy dust of snow into the Sheriff's face.
"I don't know," said the lad. "Nobody could hear very much through that."
"Ugh!" said the Sheriff. "We will have a blizzard on us before long, and Government pay doesn't warrant one taking chances of that kind. Aren't we playing a fool's game, Clavering?"
Clavering laughed somewhat unpleasantly. "There are other emoluments attached to your office which should cover a little inconvenience," he said. "Now, I fancy I know Larry Grant better than the rest of you, and it would take quite a large-sized blizzard to keep him at home when he had anything to do. Once you put him out of the way it will make things a good deal more pleasant for everybody. Larry is the one man with any brains the homesteaders have in this part of the country, and while they would make no show without him, we can expect nothing but trouble while he's at liberty. It seems to me that warrants our putting up with a little unpleasantness."
"Quite improving!" said Allonby, who was not in the best of temper just then. "One could almost wonder if you had any personal grudge against the man, Clavering. You are so astonishingly disinterested when you talk of him. Now, if I didn't like a man I'd make an opportunity of telling him."
Clavering laughed. "You're young, Chris, or you wouldn't worry about folks' motives when their efforts suit you. What are the men doing?"
"Freezing, and grumbling!" said Allonby. "They've made up their minds to get Larry this time or we wouldn't have kept them here. It's the horses I'm anxious about. They seem to know what is coming, and they're going to give us trouble."
"A fool's game!" repeated the Sheriff, with a shiver. "Got any of those cigars with you, Clavering? If I'm to stay here, I have to smoke."
Clavering threw him the case and turned away with Allonby. They went down through the bluff together and stood a few moments looking up the trail. It led downwards towards them, a streak of faintly shining whiteness, through the gloom of the trees, and the wind that set the branches thrashing whirled powdery snow into their faces, though whether this came down from the heavens or was uplifted from the frozen soil they did not know. With eyes dimmed and tingling cheeks, they moved back again amidst the birches; but even there it was bitterly cold, and Allonby was glad to turn his face from the wind a moment as they stopped to glance at the tethered horses. They were stamping impatiently, while the man on watch, who would have patted one of them, sprang backwards when the beast lashed out at him.
"If Larry doesn't come soon, I guess we're going to find it hard to keep them here," he said. "They're 'most pulling the branches they're hitched to off the trees."
Allonby nodded. "Larry would be flattered if he knew the trouble you and I were taking over him, Clavering," he said. "It's also the first time I've seen you worry much about this kind of thing."
"What kind of thing?"
"Citizen's duty! I think that's the way you put it?"
Clavering laughed. "If you want to be unpleasant, Chris, can't you try a different line? That one's played out. It's too cold to quarrel."
"I don't feel pleasant," said Allonby. "In fact, I don't like this thing, any way. Before Larry got stuck with his notions he was a friend of mine."
"If the boys don't get too cold to shoot it's quite likely he will be nobody's friend to-morrow," said Clavering cruelly. "We'll go round and look at them."
They went back into the trail once more, and the icy gusts struck through them as they plodded up it; but they found no man keeping watch beside it, as there should have been. The cow-boys had drawn back for shelter among the trees, and Clavering, who found them stamping and shivering, had some difficulty in getting them to their posts again. They had been there two hours, and the cold was almost insupportable.
"I guess it's no use," said Allonby. "As soon as we have gone on every boy will be back behind his tree, and I don't know that anybody could blame them. Any way I'm 'most too cold for talking."
They went back together, and, while the cow-boys, who did as Allonby had predicted, slowly froze among the trees, rolled themselves in the sleigh-robes and huddled together. It was blowing strongly now, and a numbing drowsiness had to be grappled with as the warmth died out of them. At last when a few feathery flakes came floating down, the Sheriff shook himself with a sleepy groan.
"There is not a man living who could keep me here more than another quarter of an hour," he said. "Are the boys on the look-out by the trail, Allonby?"
"They were," said the lad drowsily. "I don't know if they're there now, and it isn't likely. Clavering can go and make sure if he likes to, but if anyone wants me to get up, he will have to lift me."
Neither Clavering nor the Sheriff appeared disposed to move, and it was evident that both had abandoned all hope of seeing Larry Grant that night. Ten minutes that seemed interminable passed, and the white flakes that whirled about them grew thicker between the gusts and came down in a bewildering rush. The Sheriff shook the furs off him and stood up with a groan.
"Tell them to bring the horses. I have had quite enough," he said.
Allonby staggered to his feet, and reeled into the wood. There was a hoarse shouting, and a trampling of hoofs that was drowned in a roar of wind, and when that slackened a moment a faint cry went up.
"Hallo!" said the Sheriff; "he's coming."
Then, nobody quite remembered what he did. Here and there a man struggled with a plunging horse in the darkness of the wood, and one or two blundered into each other and fell against the trunks as they ran on foot. They were dazed with cold, and the snow, that seemed to cut their cheeks, was in their eyes.
Allonby, however, saw that Clavering was mounted, and the horse he rode apparently going round and round with him, while by and by he found himself in the saddle. He was leaning low over the horse's neck, with one moccasined foot in the stirrup and the other hanging loose, while the branches lashed at him, when something dark and shapeless came flying down the trail.
He heard a hoarse shout and a rifle flashed, but the wind drowned the sound and before he was in the trail the sleigh, which was what he supposed the thing to be, had flashed by. One cannot handily fit spurs to moccasins, and, as his hands were almost useless, it was some time before he induced the horse, which desired to go home uphill, to take the opposite direction. Then, he was off at a gallop, with a man whom he supposed to be Clavering in front of him, and the Sheriff, who seemed to be shouting instructions, at his side. Allonby did not think that anybody heard them, but that was of no great moment to him then, for the trail was narrow and slippery here and there, and he was chiefly concerned with the necessity of keeping clear of his companion. He could not see the sleigh now and scarcely fancied that anybody else did, but he could hear the beat of hoofs in front of him when the wind sank a trifle, and rode on furiously down-hill at a gallop. The horse had apparently yielded to its terror of the storm, and Allonby had more than a suspicion that, had he wanted to, he could neither have turned it nor pulled it up.
Clavering still held in front of him, but the Sheriff was dropping back a little, and the lad did not know whether any of the rest were following. He was, however, certain that, barring a fall, a mounted man could overtake a sleigh, and that the up grade beyond the bridge would tell on the beasts that dragged a weight behind them. So while the snow whirled past him and the dim trees flashed by, he urged on the beast until he heard the bridge rattle under him and felt the pace slacken—the trail had begun to lead steeply up out of the hollow.
The horse was flagging a little by the time they reached the crest of the rise, and for a few moments Allonby saw nothing at all. The roar of the trees deafened him, and the wind drove the snow into his eyes. Then, as he gasped and shook it from him when the gust had passed, he dimly made out something that moved amidst the white haze and guessed that it was Clavering. If that were so, he felt it was more than likely that the sleigh was close in front of him. A few minutes later he had come up with the man whose greater weight was telling, and while they rode stirrup to stirrup and neck by neck, Allonby fancied there was something dim and shadowy in front of them.
Clavering shouted as he dropped behind, and Allonby who failed to catch what he said was alone, blinking at the filmy whiteness, through which he had blurred glimpses of the object ahead, now growing more distinct. He could also, when the wind allowed it, hear the dull beat of hoofs. How long it took him to overtake it he could never remember; but at last the sleigh was very close to him, and he shouted. There was no answer; but Allonby, who could scarcely hear his own voice, did not consider this astonishing, and tried again. Still no answer came back, and, coming up with the sleigh at every stride, he dragged the butt of his sling rifle round and fumbled at the strap with a numbed and almost useless hand.
He could see the back of the sleigh, but nothing else, and lurching perilously in the saddle he got the rifle in his hand; but, cold and stiffened as he was, he dared not loose his grasp on the bridle, and so, with the butt at his hip, he raced up level with the sleigh. Then, the horse, perhaps edged off the beaten trail into the snow outside it, blundered in its stride, and the rifle, that fell as the lad swayed, was left behind. He had both hands on the bridle the next moment, and leaning down sideways fancied there was nobody in the sleigh. It took him a second or two to make quite sure of it, and at least a minute more before he brought the horse to a standstill in the trail. By that time the sleigh had swept on into the sliding whiteness. Wheeling his horse, Clavering rode out of the snow and pulled up in evident astonishment.
"Have you let him get away?" he gasped.
"He wasn't there," said Allonby.
"Not there! I saw him and another man when they drove past us in the bluff."
"Well," said Allonby, "I'm quite certain there's nobody in that sleigh now."
The wind that roared about them cut short the colloquy, and a minute or two later Allonby became sensible that Clavering was speaking again.
"Larry and the other man must have dropped into the soft snow when the team slowed up on the up grade, knowing the horses would go on until they reached their stable," he said. "Well, they'll be away through the bluff now, and a brigade of cavalry would scarcely find them on such a night. In fact, we will have to trust the beasts to take us home."
Just then the Sheriff, with one or two cow-boys, rode up, and Allonby, who did not like the man, laughed as he signed him to stop.
"You can go back and get your driving horses in. We have been chasing a sleigh with no one in it," he said. "Larry has beaten us again!"
TORRANCE ASKS A QUESTION
There was but one lamp lighted in the hall at Cedar Range, and that was turned low, but there was light enough to satisfy Clavering, who stood beneath it with Hetty's maid close beside him and a little red leather case in his hand. The girl's eyes were eager, but they were fixed upon the case and not the man, who had seen the keenness in them and was not displeased. Clavering had met other women in whom cupidity was at least as strong as vanity.
"Now I wonder if you can guess what is inside there, and who it is for," he said.
The maid drew a trifle nearer, stooping slightly over the man's hand, and she probably knew that the trace of shyness, which was not all assumed, became her. She was also distinctly conscious that the pose she fell into displayed effectively a prettily rounded figure.
"Something for Miss Torrance?" she said.
Clavering's laugh was, as his companion noticed, not quite spontaneous. "No," he said. "I guess you know as well as I do that Miss Torrance would not take anything of this kind from me. She has plenty of them already."
The maid knew this was a fact, for she had occasionally spent a delightful half-hour adorning herself with Hetty's jewellery.
"Well," she said, with a little tremor of anticipation in her voice, "what is inside it?"
Clavering laid the case in her hand. "It is yours," he said. "Just press that spring."
It was done, and she gasped as a gleam of gold and a coloured gleam met her eyes. "My!" she said. "They're real—and it's for me?"
Clavering smiled a little, and taking her fingers lightly closed them on the case.
"Of course," he said. "Well, you're pleased with it?"
The sparkle in the girl's eyes and the little flush in her face was plain enough, but the man's soft laugh was perfectly genuine. It was scarcely a gift he had made her; but while he expected that the outlay upon the trinket would be repaid him, he could be generous when it suited him, and was quite aware that a less costly lure would have served his purpose equally. He also knew when it was advisable to offer something more tasteful than the obtrusive dollar.
"Oh," said the girl, "it's just lovely!"
Clavering, who had discretion, did not look round, but, though he kept his dark eyes on his companion's face, he listened carefully. He could hear the wind outside, and the crackle of the stove, but nothing else, and knew that the footsteps of anyone approaching would ring tolerably distinctly down the corridor behind the hall. He also remembered that the big door nearest them was shut.
"Well," he said, "it wouldn't do to put anything that wasn't pretty on a neck like that, and I wonder if you would let me fix it."
The girl made no protest; but though she saw the admiration in the man's dark eyes as she covertly looked up, it would have pleased her better had he been a trifle more clumsy. His words and glances were usually bold enough, but, as he clasped the little brooch on, his fingers were almost irritatingly deft and steady. Men, she knew, did not make fools of themselves from a purely artistic appreciation of feminine comeliness.
"Now," she said, slipping away from him with a blush, "I wonder what you expect for this."
Clavering's eyebrows went up and there was a faint assumption of haughtiness in his face, which became it.
"Only the pleasure of seeing it where it is. It's a gift," he said.
"Well," said the girl, "that was very kind of you; but you're quite sure you never gave Miss Torrance anything of this kind?"
"No. I think I told you so."
The maid was not convinced. "But," she said, looking at him sideways, "I thought you did. She has a little gold chain, very thin, and not like the things they make now—and just lately she is always wearing it."
"I never saw it."
The girl smiled significantly. "I guess that's not astonishing. She wears it low down on her neck—and the curious thing is that it lay by and she never looked at it for ever so long."
Clavering felt that the dollars the trinket had cost him had not been wasted; but though he concealed his disgust tolerably well, the maid noticed it. She had, however, vague ambitions, and a scarcely warranted conviction that, given a fair field, she could prove herself a match for her mistress.
"Then, if it wasn't you, it must have been the other man," she said.
"The other man?"
"Yes," with a laugh. "The one I took the wallet with the dollars to."
Clavering hoped he had not betrayed his astonishment; but she had seen the momentary flash in his eyes and the involuntary closing of his hand.
"Now," he said firmly, "that can't be quite straight, and one should be very careful about saying that kind of thing."
The girl looked at him steadily. "Still, I took a wallet with dollar bills in it to Mr. Grant—at night. I met him on the bluff, and Miss Torrance sent them him."
It was possible that Clavering would have heard more had he followed the line of conduct he had adopted at first; but he stood thoughtfully silent instead, which did not by any means please his companion as well. He had a vague notion that this was a mistake; but the anger he did not show was too strong for him. Then, he fancied he heard a footstep on the stairway, and laughed in a somewhat strained fashion.
"Well, we needn't worry about that; and I guess if I stay here any longer, Mr. Torrance will be wondering where I have gone," he said.
He went out by one door, and a few moments later Miss Schuyler came in by another. She swept a hasty glance round the hall, most of which was in the shadow, and her eyes caught the faint sparkle at the maid's neck. The next moment the girl moved back out of the light; but Miss Schuyler saw her hand go up, and fancied there was something in it when it came down again. She had also heard a man's footstep, and could put two and two together.
"Miss Torrance wants the silk. It was here, but I don't see it," she said. "Who went out a moment or two ago?"
The girl opened a bureau. "Mr. Clavering. He left his cigar-case when he first came in."
She took out a piece of folded silk, and Miss Schuyler noticed the fashion in which she held it.
"It is the lighter shade we want; but the other piece is very like it. Unroll it so I can see it," she said.
The maid seemed to find this somewhat difficult; but Miss Schuyler had seen a strip of red leather between the fingers of one hand, and understanding why it was so, went out thoughtfully. She knew the appearance of a jewel-case tolerably well, and had more than a suspicion as to whom the girl had obtained it from. Miss Schuyler, who would not have believed Clavering's assertion about the trinket had she heard it, wondered what he expected in exchange for it, which perhaps accounted for the fact that she contrived to overtake him in the corridor at the head of the stairs.
"When you left Hetty and me alone we understood it was because Mr. Torrance was waiting for you," she said.
"Yes," said Clavering, smiling. "It is scarcely necessary to explain that if he hadn't been I would not have gone. I fancied he was in the hall."
Flora Schuyler nodded as though she believed him, but she determined to leave no room for doubt. "He is in his office," she said. "Have you the deerskin cigar-case you showed us with you? You will remember I was interested in the Indian embroidery."
"I'm sorry I haven't," said Clavering. "Torrance's cigars are better than mine, so I usually leave mine at home. But I'll bring the case next time, and if you would like to copy it, I could get you a piece of the dressed hide from one of the Blackfeet."
He turned away, and Flora Schuyler decided not to tell Hetty what she had heard—Hetty was a little impulsive occasionally—but it seemed to Miss Schuyler that it would be wise to watch her maid and Clavering closely.
In the meantime, the man walked away towards Torrance's office, considering what the maid had told him. He had found it difficult to credit, but her manner had convinced him, and he realized that he could not afford the delay he had hitherto considered advisable. A young woman, he reflected, would scarcely send a wallet of dollars at night to a man whose plans were opposed to her father's without a strong motive, and the fact that Hetty wore a chain hidden about her neck had its meaning. He had, like most of his neighbours, laughed at Larry's hopeless devotion, but he had seen similar cases in which the lady at last relented, and while he knew Hetty's loyalty to her own people, and scarcely thought that she had more than a faint, tolerant tenderness for Larry, it appeared eminently desirable to prevent anything of that kind happening. Torrance, who was sitting smoking, glanced at him impatiently when he went in.
"You have been a long while," he said.
"I have a sufficient excuse, sir," said Clavering.
"Well," said Torrance drily, "they are quite clever girls, but I have found myself wishing lately they were a long way from here. That, however, is not what I want to talk about. Apparently none of us can get hold of Larry."
"It is not for the want of effort. There are few things that would please me better."
Torrance glanced at Clavering sharply. "No. I fancied once or twice you had a score of your own against him. In fact, I heard Allonby say something of the same kind, too."
"Chris is a trifle officious," said Clavering. "Any way, it's quite evident that we shall scarcely hold the homestead-boys back until we get our thumb on Larry."
"How are we going to do it? He has come out ahead of us so far."
"We took the wrong way," said Clavering. "Now, Larry, as you know, puts all his dealings through the Tillotson Company. Tillotson, as I found out in Chicago, has a free hand to buy stocks or produce with his balances, and Larry, who does not seem to bank his dollars, draws on him. It's not an unusual thing. Well, I've been writing to folks in Chicago, and they tell me Tillotson is in quite a tight place since the upward move in lard. It appears he has been selling right along for a fall."
Torrance looked thoughtful. "Tillotson is a straight man, but I've had a notion he has been financing some of the homestead-boys. He handles all Larry's dollars?"
Clavering nodded. "He put them into lard. Now, the Brand Company hold Tillotson's biggest contract, and if it suited them they could break him. I don't think they want to. Tillotson is a kind of useful man to them."
Torrance brought his fist down on the table. "Well," he said grimly, "we have a stronger pull than Tillotson. Most of the business in this country goes to them, and if he thought it worth while, Brand would sell all his relations up to-morrow. I'll go right through to Chicago and fix the thing."
Clavering smiled. "If you can manage it, you will cut off Larry's supplies."
"Then," said Torrance, "I'll start to-morrow. Still, I don't want to leave the girls here, and it would suit me if you could drive them over to Allonby's. I don't mind admitting that they have given me a good deal of anxiety, though they've made things pleasant, too, and I've 'most got afraid of wondering what Cedar will feel like when they go away."
"Will Miss Torrance go away?"
"She will," said Torrance, with a little sigh, though there was pride in his eyes, "when the trouble's over—but not before. She came home to see the old man through."
Clavering seized the opportunity. "Did you ever contemplate the possibility of Miss Torrance marrying anybody here?"
"I have a notion that there's nobody good enough," Torrance said quickly.
Clavering nodded, though he felt the old man's eyes upon him, and did not relish the implication. "Still, I fancy the same difficulty would be met with anywhere else, and that encourages me to ask if you would have any insuperable objections to myself?"
Torrance looked at him steadily. "I have been expecting this. Once I thought it was Miss Schuyler; but she does not like you."
"I am sorry," and Clavering wondered whether his host was right, "though, the latter fact is not of any great moment. I have long had a sincere respect for Miss Torrance, but I am afraid it would be difficult to tell you all I think of her."
"The point," said Torrance, somewhat grimly, "is what she thinks of you."
"I don't know. It did not seem quite fitting to ask her until I had spoken to you."
Torrance said nothing for almost a minute, and to Clavering the silence became almost intolerable. The old man's forehead was wrinkled and he stared at the wall in front of him with vacant eyes. Then, he spoke very slowly.
"That was the square thing, and I have to thank you. For twenty years now I have worked and saved for Hetty—that she might have the things her mother longed for and never got. And I've never been sorry—the girl is good all through. It is natural that she should marry; and even so far as the dollars go, she will bring as much to her husband as he can give her, and if it's needful more; but there are one or two points about you I don't quite like."
The old man's voice vibrated and his face grew softer and the respect that Clavering showed when he answered was not all assumed.
"I know my own unworthiness, sir, but I think any passing follies I may have indulged in are well behind me now."
"Well," said Torrance drily, "it's quite hard to shake some tastes and habits off, and one or two of them have a trick of hanging on to the man who thinks he has done with them. Now, I want a straight answer. Do you know any special reason why it would not be the square thing for you to marry my daughter?"
A faint colour crept into Clavering's face. "I know a good many which would make the bargain unfair to her," he said, "but there are very few men in this country who would be good enough for her."
Torrance checked him with a lifted hand. "That is not what I mean. It is fortunate for most of us that women of her kind believe the best of us and can forgive a good deal. I am not speaking generally: do you know any special reason—one that may make trouble for both of you? It's a plain question, and you understand it. If you do, we'll go into the thing right now, and then, if it can be got over, never mention it again."
Clavering sat silent, knowing well that delay might be fatal, and yet held still by something he had heard in the old man's voice and seen in his eyes. However, he had succeeded in signally defeating one blackmailer.
"Sir," he said, very slowly, "I know of no reason now."
Torrance had not moved his eyes from him. "Then," he said, "I can only take your word. You are one of us and understand the little things that please girls like Hetty. If she will take you, you can count on my good will."
Clavering made a little gesture of thanks. "I ask nothing more, and may wait before I urge my suit; but it seems only fair to tell you that my ranching has not been very profitable lately and my affairs——"
Torrance cut him short. "In these things it is the man that counts the most, and not the dollars. You will not have to worry over that point, now you have told me I can trust Hetty to you."
He said a little more on the same subject, and then Clavering went out with unpleasantly confused sensations through which a feeling of degradation came uppermost. He had not led an exemplary life, but pride had kept him clear of certain offences, and he had as yet held his word sacred when put upon his honour. It was some minutes before he ventured to join Hetty and Miss Schuyler, who he knew by the sound of the piano were in the hall.
Hetty sat with her fingers on the keyboard, the soft light of the lamps in the sconces shining upon her—very pretty, very dainty, an unusual softness in the eyes. She turned towards Clavering.
"You went in to get it"—touching the music—"just because you heard me say I would like those songs. A four days' ride, and a blizzard raging on one of them!" she said.
Clavering looked at her gravely with something in his eyes that puzzled Miss Schuyler, who had expected a wittily graceful speech.
"You are pleased with them?" he said.
"Yes," said the girl impulsively. "But I feel horribly mean because I sent you, although, of course, I didn't mean to. It was very kind of you, but you must not do anything of that kind again."
Clavering, who did not appear quite himself, watched her turn over the music in silence, for though the last words were spoken quietly, there was, he and Miss Schuyler fancied, a definite purpose behind them.
"Then, you will sing one of them?" he said.
Hetty touched the keys—there was a difference in her when she sang, for music was her passion, and as the clear voice thrilled the two who listened, a flush of exaltation, that was almost spiritual, crept into her face. Clavering set his lips, and when the last notes sank into the stillness Miss Schuyler wondered what had brought the faint dampness to his forehead. She did not know that all that was good in him had revolted against what he had done, and meant to do, just then, and had almost gained the mastery. Unfortunately, instead of letting Hetty sing again and fix Clavering's half-formed resolution, she allowed her distrust of him to find expression; for capable young woman though she was, Flora Schuyler sometimes blundered.
"The song was worth the effort," she said. "Mr. Clavering is, however, evidently willing to do a good deal to give folks pleasure."
Clavering glanced at her with a little smile. "Folks? That means more than one."
"Yes; it generally means at least two."
Hetty laughed as she looked round. "Is there anybody else he has been giving music to?"
"I fancy the question is unnecessary," Flora said. "He told us he came straight here, and there is nobody but you and I at Cedar he would be likely to bring anything to."
"Of course not! Well, I never worry over your oracular observations. They generally mean nothing when you understand them," said Hetty.
Flora Schuyler smiled maliciously at Clavering. She did not know that when a good deed hung in the balance she had, by rousing his intolerance of opposition, just tipped the beam.
It was very cold, the red sun hung low above the prairie's western rim, and Clavering, who sat behind Hetty and Miss Schuyler in the lurching sleigh, glanced over his shoulder anxiously.
"Hadn't you better pull up and let me have the reins, Miss Torrance?" he said.
Hetty laughed. "Why?" she asked, "I haven't seen the horse I could not drive."
"Well," said Clavering drily, "this is the first time you have either seen or tried to drive Badger, and I not infrequently get out and lead the team down the slope in front of you when I cross the creek. It has a very awkward bend in it."
Hetty looked about her, and, as it happened, the glare of sunlight flung back from the snow was in her eyes. Still, she could dimly see the trail dip over what seemed to be the edge of a gully close ahead, and she knew the descent to the creek in its bottom was a trifle perilous. She was, however, fearless and a trifle obstinate, and Clavering had, unfortunately, already ventured to give her what she considered quite unnecessary instructions as to the handling of the team. There had also been an indefinite change in his attitude towards her during the last week or two, which the girl, without exactly knowing why, resented and this appeared a fitting opportunity for checking any further presumption.
"You can get down now if you wish," she said. "We will stop and pick you up when we reach the level again."
Clavering said nothing further, for he knew that Miss Torrance was very like her father in some respects, and Hetty shook the reins. The next minute they had swept over the brink, and Flora Schuyler saw the trail dip steeply but slantwise to lessen the gradient to the frozen creek. The sinking sun was hidden by the high bank now and the snow had faded to a cold blue-whiteness, through which the trail ran, a faint line of dusky grey. It was difficult to distinguish at the pace the team were making, and the ground dropped sharply on one side of it.
"Let him have the reins, Hetty," she said.
Unfortunately Clavering, who was a trifle nettled and knew that team, especially the temper of Badger the near horse better than Hetty did, laughed just then.
"Hold fast, Miss Schuyler, and remember that if anything does happen, the right-hand side is the one to get out from," he said.
"Now," said Hetty, "I'm not going to forgive you that. You sit quite still, and we'll show him something, Flo."
She touched the horses with the lash, and Badger flung up his head; another moment and he and the other beast had broken into a gallop. Hetty threw herself backwards with both hands on the reins, but no cry escaped her, and Clavering, who had a suspicion that he could do no more than she was doing now, even if he could get over the back of the seat in time, which was out of the question, set his lips as he watched the bank of snow the trail twisted round rush towards them. The sleigh bounced beneath him in another second or two, there was a stifled scream from Flora Schuyler, and leaning over he tore the robe about the girls from its fastenings. Then, there was a bewildering jolting and a crash, and he was flung out head foremost into dusty snow.
When he scrambled to his feet again Hetty was sitting in the snow close by him, and Flora Schuyler creeping out of a wreath of it on her hands and knees. The sleigh lay on one side, not far away, with the Badger rolling and kicking amidst a tangle of harness, though the other horse was still upon its feet.
Clavering was pleased to find all his limbs intact, and almost as gratified to see only indignant astonishment in Hetty's face. She rose before he could help her and in another moment or two Flora Schuyler also stood upright, clinging to his arm.
"No," she said, with a little gasp, "I don't think I'm killed, though I felt quite sure of it at first. Now I only feel as though I'd been through an earthquake."
Hetty turned and looked at Clavering, with a little red spot in either cheek. "Why don't you say something?" she asked. "Are you waiting for me?"