"Florence is kind," said Agatha. "I would like to go, but you know it's impossible."
"I don't know," George rejoined in an authoritative voice. "I'm your elder brother and it's my duty to see you do what you ought. To begin with, I looked up your doctor and he told me you needed a long rest."
"It can't be got. I must go back to school when the holidays are over."
"Wait a bit! None of us is as indispensable as we sometimes think."
Agatha felt half amused and half annoyed. George often made remarks like this and imagined that they clinched his arguments. She saw that he had been meddling.
"What did you do after seeing the doctor?" she asked suspiciously.
"I went to your principal at the school. She said she would talk to the managers and had no doubt that if it was needful they would let you off for a time. Now as I can fix the thing with the doctor, there's no reason you shouldn't quit work and stop with us."
Agatha colored angrily. George meant well, but he had gone too far. She felt this worse because she was tempted to give way. She liked her brother's wife and needed a rest.
"Well," she said, "I suppose I ought to have expected something of the kind, but it's comforting to feel that your efforts are wasted. I shall be quite well in a week or two and am going back to school. For one thing, I shall need some money before very long."
George looked hard at her. "You don't say why. Still if it's money that prevents you taking the proper line, I might lend you some—" He stopped and resumed with suspicion: "But I won't give you a dollar to waste in searching for father's silver lode!"
"I am going to look for the lode," said Agatha quietly.
"I hoped you had got over that foolishness," George rejoined, throwing his cigarette on the floor, although he was generally careful about such things. "Now listen to me for a few minutes, and try to be sensible!"
"One misses much by always being sensible," Agatha remarked with a resigned smile.
"It often saves one's relations trouble. Anyhow, the blamed lode has thrown its shadow on all our lives, and I don't mean to stand off, saying nothing, and see you spoil yours."
"You escaped the shadow, because you never believed in the lode."
"I certainly didn't and don't believe in it now! For all that, I saw father's restlessness and mother's fears."
"Ah!" said Agatha, "I didn't think—"
"I allow I haven't your imagination, but I can see a thing that's obvious. Father thought he hid his feelings, but mother knew and grieved. She was afraid he would give us up and go back to the North."
"No!" said Agatha with firmness; "she was not afraid he would give us up! Father never failed in his duty."
"Then she was certainly afraid he'd die in the bush; as he did. She knew what the prospectors were up against, and though she smiled when he talked about the ore, I knew she had an anxious heart. I don't claim that the anxiety broke her down, but it made a heavy load and helped."
"Yet when she was very ill she did not ask him to promise he wouldn't go."
"She did not mind then," said George in a quiet voice. "She was dying and we had grown up. But there was nothing selfish about her acquiescence. I think she was glad to set him free, because she loved him and knew what he had borne. He was a dreamer and not a business man. She had run the store and taken care of him, and knew he would be lonely after she had gone. Besides, I sometimes feel she thought he would follow and rejoin her soon. It did not matter by what road he came."
Agatha was silent for some moments because she was surprised and moved. George had a keener imagination and saw farther than she thought. It looked as if he had known her mother best.
"You loved her well and so you understood," she said. "But the troubles she bore are done with, and now I stand alone. I have no responsibilities; my life is mine!"
George's face got red. "Well, perhaps I don't count for much, but we didn't cut loose when I married. I have a sister as well as a wife."
"I'm sorry, George," said Agatha, putting her hand on his arm. "I didn't mean to hurt."
"Very well! I'm not a sentimental fellow; let's be practical. You can't locate the ore, because it isn't there; but you may spoil your health and get soured by disappointment. Then, if you stop long, you'll lose your post and ruin your career. The blamed silver may become a fixed illusion. That's what I'm really afraid of most. In some ways, you're very like father."
"You're persuaded the silver was an illusion?"
"I am persuaded," George declared. "Men who live in the frozen woods get credulous and believe extraordinary things, and tales of wonderful lodes are common in the mining belts. Father heard something of the kind and brooded over it until he came to believe he had located the ore. He had too much imagination and wasn't practical."
"But he gave me some specimens he found and they carry rich metal."
"I allow he thought he found them; but that's a different thing."
Agatha smiled. "Perhaps your theory's plausible, but it has some weak points."
"Anyhow, if father couldn't locate the vein he claimed to have struck, I reckon there's not much chance of your doing so."
"I mean to try," said Agatha, with ominous quietness.
George saw that she was resolute, and although he was obstinate knew he was beaten. Agatha could not be moved when she looked like that.
"I can't allow that you know best, but guess I may as well quit arguing," he remarked with a resigned shrug. "You'll come along and stop with Florence before you go back to Toronto?"
"I will come for a week," Agatha agreed, and George went away to look for Farnam.
George went away next morning and a few days afterwards Farnam walked home with his wife and Agatha from a visit to a neighbor's homestead. When they reached the edge of Farnam's orchard they stopped and looked about. An extensive clearing had been cut out of the forest, the evening was clear and cold, and the pines threw long blue shadows on the snow. The young fruit trees ran back in orderly rows, and a frozen creek that crossed the orchard was picked out in delicate shades of gray. Farnam told Agatha that he found the creek useful for irrigation, because he had known the apples to shrivel on the trees in a dry summer.
At the edge of the bush a group of men were at work. The thud of their axes jarred on the quietness, and the rattle of a chain rang musically through the shadows as a teamster threw the links across a log. His horses stood close by, with a thin cloud of steam rising from their bodies.
"Lumber worth sawing is getting scarce, and we'll float the best logs down to the mill when the thaw comes," Farnam said to Agatha. "In the meantime, we want them off the ground before we clean up the pieces the boys have slashed. One gets at this kind of work in winter when nothing much can be done, and I must be ready to break new soil for planting in the spring."
"You are spending a good deal of money," Mrs. Farnam interrupted. "You haven't been paid for the last shipments to England yet."
"Mabel's cautious," Farnam remarked to Agatha. "She's a pretty good business woman, but doesn't understand that the more you spend on your job the more you get. Anyhow, you ought to get more, but I admit you're sometimes badly stung." Then he turned to his wife. "I must go up and see the shippers in Montreal; in fact, now you have Agatha with you, I think I'll start to-morrow."
"Very well," said Mrs. Farnam. "I hate to be left alone, particularly when the nights are long." She indicated the teamster. "I see you have hired another man; that's a fresh extravagance. How long have you had him?"
"A week or two; thought I told you when he came. He's a pretty good worker."
"You didn't tell me; I imagine you didn't want me to know! He's certainly not what the boys call a looker and his face doesn't inspire me with much confidence. Besides, he's lame."
Agatha glanced at the man, who came towards them, walking with a slight limp beside his horses as they hauled the log across the snow. He had a sullen air and did not look up as he passed.
"He is not handsome," she agreed, and asked: "Where do the men live?"
"We have fixed up this lot in the packing shed; my regular hands leave me in winter," Farnam replied, indicating a wooden building at some distance from the house. "However, we'll go home. There are some accounts I must examine before I start for Montreal."
They went on, and when after supper Mrs. Farnam grumbled at being left without a man in the house, Farnam took out an automatic pistol and explained how it was used.
"I don't know why I bought the thing, unless it was to satisfy Mabel," he said to Agatha. "It's curious, but while she could handle mutinous pupils and bluff the managers, she quakes if a door rattles on a windy night. One's rather safer in our homestead than a Montreal hotel; but Mabel has lived in the cities and the Wild West tradition dies hard. As a matter of fact, there never was a Wild West in Canada." He opened the pistol. "You put the cartridge shells in like this—"
"You can show Agatha how it works; I won't touch the thing," Mrs. Farnam declared. "She's something of a sport, but I'm a womanly woman, except when I teach school."
Farnam laughed. "On the whole, it might be better to leave the cartridges out. If somebody did break in, all you need do would be to pretend you were asleep. Everybody in the neighborhood knows where my office is and an intelligent burglar begins at the safe. There's no money in mine now."
After a little good-humored banter, Agatha took the pistol and Farnam went to his office at the other end of the house. Next day he started for Montreal, and at night Mrs. Farnam made Agatha come with her while she examined the fastenings of the doors and windows. The house was low and the roof of the veranda in front reached nearly to the second floor. Nothing disturbing happened, and on the next night Agatha sat up after Mrs. Farnam had gone to bed, reading the letters Strange had written her from the North.
There were not many, and some were marked by a careless style that obscured the meaning. This puzzled Agatha, who remembered that her father had generally talked with lucid clearness. Still they helped her to picture the life he had led in the wilds, and she read them often, trying to follow on a map his wanderings in search of the lode. They told her more about the country than the books she read, and she had read a number, because the subject had a fascination. All she could learn would be of use when she came to carry out her plans.
When she tied up the letters and looked at the clock it was later than she thought. The room felt cold and she shivered, but sat still for a few moments, musing. The house was quiet and she imagined Mrs. Farnam was asleep; but it was snowing, for she heard the flakes beat upon the window. Looking round the comfortable room, she thought of the men who braved the rigors of winter in the frozen wilds. Thirlwell, for example, was bearing such cold as was never felt in South Ontario.
She started, for there was a noise overhead, as if a door had been gently opened, but next moment pulled herself together. Mabel had not gone to sleep as she had thought, and picking up an electric torch, she put out the lamp. When she was half way up the stairs she heard somebody moving about, but it was not like Mabel's step. The movements seemed cautious, and there was something awkward about them. Agatha, who wore felt-soled slippers, stopped and listened, while her heart beat fast. She heard nothing now, but felt alarmed, and wondered what she ought to do. A call would probably bring an answer that would banish her fears; but suppose it was not Mabel she had heard? There was, however, another way of finding out, and with something of an effort she went upstairs.
Mrs. Farnam's room was on the landing, and Agatha turned the handle cautiously. The door would not open, and it was obvious that Mabel had locked herself in. Then the latch slipped back with a jar that sounded horribly loud, and she waited, trembling and trying to keep calm. Since Mabel had not heard the noise, it was plain that she was asleep and somebody else was in the house. Still Mabel, if awakened, would not be of much help, and remembering that the pistol was in her room, Agatha went down the passage.
The passage was very cold, a curtain swayed in an icy draught, and she found the door of her room open. Stopping for a moment, she thought there was somebody inside. This, however, might be a trick of her imagination, and although she wanted to steal away, she knew that if she did so she would lose her self-respect and the confidence she would need for her journey to the North. She must brave real dangers in the wilds and live among rude men. Besides, the pistol was on a table near the door.
Somebody moved as she went in, for there was a rustle and a board cracked, but her hand touched the pistol and she turned on the powerful electric torch. As the beam of light swept across the room she saw that the drawer of a small writing-table had been pulled out. Then the beam passed on and touched a man kneeling beside her open trunk. The clothes she had not unpacked were scattered on the floor, as if the man had been looking for something, and a lantern stood near his hand. She thought he had just put it out, since she noted a smell of oil.
Now she had found the intruder, she was less afraid than angry that he had pulled about her clothes with his coarse, dirty hands. She knew him, for he was the teamster she had seen in the orchard. The beam that picked him out, however, left the rest of the room in gloom, and it was hard to hold the torch steady.
"Light your lantern, but don't move from where you are," she said. "I have a pistol."
He did as he was told, using an old-fashioned sulphur match that smelt disagreeably but made no noise. The light spread and showed her standing with the pistol in her hand, but when she risked a glance about, nothing seemed to have been disturbed except the writing-table and her trunk.
"Now you may get up, but don't be rash," she said quietly and was glad to feel she could control her voice.
He got up and waited, watching her sullenly.
"What have you taken?" she asked.
"Nothing! There was nothing worth taking!"
Agatha forced a mocking smile. "Worn clothes won't sell for much and I have no jewelry." Then she raised the pistol. "Don't move! I mean you to keep still."
He stood motionless, with a kind of dull resignation, although she thought she had noted a curious shrinking when she spoke, as if something in her voice had disturbed him.
"I don't know what to do with you," she resumed. "No doubt you knew Mr. Farnam is away, but the pistol magazine is full. To begin with, you had better empty your pockets. Pull them inside out!"
He obeyed and dropped a pipe, a tobacco tin, and two or three silver coins.
"Those are mine; I've corralled nothing of yours."
"So it seems!" Agatha rejoined. "For all that, you can leave the things there. How did you get in?"
"Over the veranda roof. You hadn't fixed the shutter in the middle."
Agatha pondered for a few moments. The fellow did not look afraid, but seemed to recognize that the advantage was with her. This was lucky, because she could not keep it up long and wanted to get rid of him.
"Well," she said, "I think you had better go out by the window you opened. Walk down the passage in front of me and don't try to turn round."
He did so until he reached the window, which opened to the side. The hinges were in good order and made no noise when he pushed back the frame.
"Get out," said Agatha. "I'll shoot if you stop."
He climbed quietly over the ledge, his lantern flickered and went out, and next moment Agatha saw nothing but the driving snow. Then she closed the window and fastened the shutter in frantic haste, and afterwards leaned against the wall, trembling and breathing hard. Still the man had gone and she thought he would not come back. Pulling herself together she returned to her room.
Although she had driven the man away, she locked the door, and when she had lighted the lamp sat down to recover her calm. There was no use in wakening Mrs. Farnam, and by and by she began to look about. The papers in the writing-table had been thrown upon the floor; her trunk was empty and the clothes it had held were scattered. The man had obviously been searching for something, and this was curious, because one would not expect to find jewelry in a writing-table, and a bureau with three or four drawers had not been opened. Then she noticed her father's letters lying in a bundle on the table, and put them back in the trunk from which she had recently taken them. After this, she re-packed her clothes, and sitting down again tried to remember all that had happened.
There was something puzzling about the adventure. To begin with, she could not see why the man had come to her room and what he expected to get. A clever thief would have gone to Farnam's office. Then she thought he was not a coward; he had given way because he was cool enough to see that he was in her power and resistance would lead to his getting shot. Yet he had seemed to shrink when he heard her voice. She reflected with faint amusement that her voice was not harsh, and she had studied its control as part of her training when she began to teach. The little tricks of tone and gesture one used to overawe young girls would not frighten a man. For all that, when she first spoke there was a hint of fear in his furtive eyes.
Agatha let this go, and pondered her own feelings and the part she had played. She had, of course, been frightened, but had preserved her judgment and seen that she could control the situation so long as she kept cool. The man had not a pistol, and she could have fired three or four shots before he could seize her; but he might have tried to seize her had she not shown that she was ready to shoot. It looked as if she had the nerve and confidence to face a crisis, which was satisfactory, since she would need these qualities when she traveled through the wilds. She had, however, long trained herself for this object; in fact, as far as possible, she made her life a preparation for the adventurous journey. Then she remembered her brother's warning and wondered whether it was justified. There was, perhaps, a danger of her dwelling too much upon the lode. She must not let it possess her mind and make her deaf to other claims. One ought to keep a proper balance. In the meantime, she was tired, and feeling limp with the reaction from the strain. She got up and shortly afterwards went to bed.
AGATHA ASKS ADVICE
Agatha said nothing next morning about her adventure, although she heard that the lame man had left the packing shed when his companions were asleep and had not come back. Next day Farnam returned and in the evening, when Mrs. Farnam was busy, she found an opportunity of talking to him alone. He looked thoughtful when he heard her story.
"You did right not to tell Mabel; but I certainly can't understand the thing," he said. "I reckon you have your imagination under pretty good control."
"I didn't imagine I saw the man," Agatha rejoined with a smile.
Farnam nodded. "We'll take that for granted. I wanted a teamster and hired the fellow when he asked for the job. He worked well, but I don't know where he came from or where he's gone, and it would scare Mabel if we put the police on his trail. Besides, I guess he lit out by the train in the morning that catches the west-bound express."
"Since he knew you were away, why did he wait instead of coming as soon as you left?"
"He probably reckoned there was a risk of his being heard on a calm, frosty night; I understand it was blowing fresh and snowing when he came. The snow would cover his tracks. But I'm puzzled. It's strange that he took nothing and left my safe alone!"
"Do you think he knew where the safe is?"
"Sure," said Farnam. "The boys come to my office for their pay." He paused and added thoughtfully: "Looks as if the fellow had an object for searching your room!"
"I wonder whether he knew I was a school teacher," Agatha remarked. "If he did know, it complicates the thing, because teachers are not often rich. Besides, how did he learn which was my room?"
"That wouldn't be hard," Farnam replied. "The boys get talking, evenings, with Mabel's kitchen help and I guess she tells them all about the house and our habits. The girl's a powerful talker."
He lighted his pipe and then resumed: "Well, my notion is he expected to find something in your room; something that he thought worth more than money."
"But I have nothing valuable," Agatha objected, with a laugh. "Now I remember, I made him empty his pockets and he left two half-dollars! It wasn't a very big fine, and I can send the dollar to some charity."
"I can't see an explanation, and we'll have to let it go; but the man will find trouble waiting if he comes back. Let me know right away if anybody gets after you like that again."
Agatha said she would do so, and hearing Mrs. Farnam's step in the passage, they began to talk about something else.
A week later, Agatha went to visit George, and then feeling braced by the holiday, resumed her duties in Toronto. Soon afterwards, she sat in her room one evening in a thoughtful mood. The house was on the outskirts of the city and she heard cheerful voices and the jingle of sleigh-bells on the road. The moon was nearly full and riding parties were going out for a drive across the glittering snow, while where the wind had swept it clear ice yachts were, no doubt, skimming about the lake. Agatha envied the happy people who could enjoy such sports, and it had cost her something to admit that they were not for her. A ticket for a concert to which she had thought of going was stuck in a picture frame, but she was not in the humor for music, and putting down the book she held, leaned back languidly in her chair.
The room was small, plainly furnished, and shadowy, for the lamp had a deep shade that confined the light to a narrow circle. Three or four books lay upon the table and a map of the North-West Territories occupied the end in front of Agatha. It was not a very good map and the natural features of the country were sketchily indicated, for belts of the northern wilderness had not been thoroughly surveyed, but she had opened it for half an hour's relaxation. After that, she must get to work.
She was not very strong yet, but had undertaken extra duties that necessitated private study. Now she felt tired after lecturing a class of absent-minded girls, and closing her eyes, abandoned herself to moody thought. George's warning was bearing fruit. Agatha was young, but knew one soon got jaded and youth slipped away. There was a risk of her spending in unrewarded efforts the years that ought to be happiest, and then finding herself old and soured. Still, when she came to think of it, she had recognized this and felt a vague dissatisfaction with her lot before George had talked to her. In fact, the dissatisfaction had begun soon after she wandered through the bush and paddled about the lake with Thirlwell.
For all that, she was not going to give up the resolve she had made long ago. She owed her father much, and must carry out the task he had unconsciously left her. She meant to search the country he had traveled for the silver vein; and then, if she was persuaded it could not be found, she would have paid her debt and be free to lead the life that others led. In the meantime, she was, so to speak, set apart, like a nun, from common joys and sorrows by a vow that must be kept. Perhaps this was an exaggeration, but it was partly true.
Banishing her thoughts, she put away the map and opened her book, but soon afterwards a servant brought in a card and stated that a man wished to see her. On the card was printed John Stormont and the number of a post-office box at Winnipeg.
"I don't know Mr. Stormont," Agatha remarked. "But if he wants to see me, you may show him in."
A few moments later a man entered the room. He was young and neatly dressed, and smiled urbanely as he bowed.
"Miss Strange, I suppose? If you are not much occupied, I hope you can give me a few minutes."
Agatha, feeling curious, indicated a chair and studied him when he sat down. His voice was rather harsh, his glance was quick, and his alert manner implied self-confidence. There was, however, nothing else to be remarked about him, and she thought him a common type of young business man.
"I am not engaged just now," she replied.
"Thank you," said Stormont. "Perhaps I'd better state that I'm pretty well known in Winnipeg, where I do business in real estate and sometimes undertake the development of mineral claims. I've recently put over two or three big transactions in that line."
"But Manitoba is a farming country."
"Certainly; the prairie belt. The eastern strip, running along the edge of the Territories from Lake of the Woods, is different. There the rocks break out among the pine forests and in the last few years prospectors have found valuable minerals. Some are being worked, and I expect we will soon hear of fresh discoveries. I understand you are the daughter of Gordon Strange, who found a silver lode in North Ontario."
"I am his daughter; but I believe the lode was not in Ontario."
"Then it was in the neighboring Territories. I expect your father often talked to you about his find."
"He did," said Agatha. "Still I don't see—"
Stormont smiled. "You wonder where I am leading you? Well, it's part of my occupation to investigate mining propositions, and where the owners want to sell, to find a buyer. Sometimes I lend them money to improve the claim. In fact, I imagine you would find me useful in many ways."
"I cannot sell the lode before I know where it is."
"That's obvious," Stormont agreed. "The difficulty, however, might be overcome, and that's where I could help. But, to begin with, am I to understand your father altogether failed to relocate the claim? Although he filed no record, he may have found a clue."
Agatha gave him a keen glance. He had said nothing to excite much suspicion, but she felt that he was going too fast and asking too many questions.
"I did not see him after he went back to the North. I suppose you know he lost his life on his last journey?"
Stormont made a sympathetic gesture. "I heard so. But, no doubt, he wrote to you and told you about his prospecting."
"Yes," said Agatha, with some reserve. "He sent me letters."
"Then I expect he told you where he went. It's possible that a study of the letters would give an experienced prospector a useful hint."
Agatha pondered. She had, with the help of her map, followed Strange's journeys, and his letters showed where the silver was not to be found, which eliminated large belts of country. Then if Stormont knew much about mining and was accustomed to negotiate the sale of claims, his curiosity implied that her father's belief in the lode was well grounded. This was encouraging, but the man was a stranger and she felt a vague distrust.
"The person who finds a vein of ore and files his record is registered as its owner when he has complied with the legal formalities," she said.
"That is so," Stormont agreed with a smile. "You feel that if you parted with the letters, you would run some risk of losing the claim? Well, one must trust one's agent to some extent, and I'll make you two propositions. You can give me all the information you have about the ore, and, if I think it worth while, I will bear the cost of prospecting and development, and give you a large share of the profits when the mine is worked. Or I'll pay you a fixed sum for the letters and any clues you can supply."
"After you have read the letters?"
"Certainly. You can't expect me to make a plunge of this kind in the dark. Anyhow, if you decide on the first plan, you will be a partner and have some control. It's plain that you will benefit by my experience."
For a few moments Agatha was tempted to agree. She needed help and could not begin the search for some time, while a man who knew all about mining could undertake it with a better chance of success. Still she saw that much depended on the man's honesty, and she had no grounds for trusting Stormont.
"Can you give me two or three weeks?" she asked. "I want to consult my friends."
"The delay might upset my plans. For one thing, it would be necessary to get as much work as possible done before the thaw comes. Prospecting is difficult in winter, but it's considerably easier traveling when the rivers are frozen, and first of all we want to find the spot. I daresay you could give me some landmarks that would help us."
Agatha hesitated. Strange had often described the neighborhood where he had found the ore, and she saw that what she knew about it might be important. Stormont's explanation of his anxiety to begin the search was plausible; but it was possible he wanted to prevent her asking advice.
"I must wait until I know what my friends think," she insisted.
"Although the loss of time may spoil our chance of locating the ore?"
"Yes," said Agatha firmly. "I must run the risk."
Stormont got up. "Very well! I don't know if we'll be able to do anything when you make your decision, but you can write to me. In the meantime, I think you ought to promise that you won't negotiate with anybody else."
"I will promise this," said Agatha and knitted her brows when he went out.
She was half afraid she had been too prudent and let a good offer go by; but although it might bring her trouble and disappointment, she would sooner look for the ore herself. She had sometimes shrunk from the task, but after all it was her duty. Then she could not ask George for advice. He had never believed in the lode and would, no doubt, tell her she was lucky to get an offer, and had better make the best bargain she could. Farnam knew nothing about mining; he was absorbed in his orchard, and Mabel now and then declared that his judgment was only worth trusting about fruit trees.
Agatha paused and admitted that she had from the beginning meant to ask Thirlwell. She could trust him; he was honest, but this was not all. When he talked about important things he had a quiet, decided manner that she liked. He would not be daunted by obstacles, and if her resolution wavered, he would not let her shirk. She did not think him clever, but he would somehow carry out what he undertook. It was curious that after a fortnight of his society she knew him so well; but she did know he was trustworthy and there was nothing more to be said.
Since a letter might not reach him for some time, she had better write at once, and she got some paper and began. It was easy to write to Thirlwell, and she told him about the lame man who had broken into the house, before she came to Stormont's offer. Indeed, when she stopped she was surprised to see how much she had said. After fastening the envelope she got up and went to the window, where she drew the thick curtain behind her and looked out.
The moon was higher up the sky and the roofs glittered in the silver light. Half the street lay in shadow, a belt of grayish blue, but the rest sparkled where the sleigh-shoes had run. A sleigh came up with a load of girls and young men in blanket-coats and furs. They seemed to be talking and laughing, but Agatha no longer envied them; the depression she had felt had gone. Then as the sleigh went past with a chime of bells she tried to follow her letter on its journey to the North.
After it left the railroad it would lie in a pack on a half-breed's shoulders, or perhaps in a skin bag on a hand-sledge, in front of which men with snowshoes marched. It would travel up winding rivers between dark walls of ragged pines, across frozen lakes, and among the rocks on high divides. Then the tired men would stop at a cluster of shacks beside a shaft and an ore-dump in the wilds, and she wondered what Thirlwell would think when he opened the envelope; whether he would be pleased or not.
But this was indulging idle sentiment that she had meant to avoid, and she went back to the table and opened her books. Thirlwell's answer would not arrive for some weeks, and if she went north, summer would come before she could start. In the meantime, she had her pupils to teach. The subject for the next morning's lesson was difficult and needed careful study.
THIRLWELL GETS A LETTER
A dreary wind wailed about the shack, and now and then the iron roof cracked as it shrank and wrenched its fastenings in the bitter cold. The room was not warm, although the front of the stove glowed a bright red, and after supper Thirlwell pulled his chair between it and the wall. He had been out for some hours with snowshoe and rifle, but had seen nothing to shoot. The white desolation was empty of life, and silent except for the wind among the pine-tops.
"I'd meant to look into the Snake Creek muskegs, but the cold drove me back," he said. "In summer one's bitten by sand-flies and mosquitoes; in winter one runs some risk of freezing to death. I wonder now and then whether mining's worth the hardship and why we stop here."
"Unprofitable mining isn't logically worth much hardship," Scott remarked. "But don't you mean you wonder why you came back?"
"No," said Thirlwell, with a touch of embarrassment; "that was pretty obvious. I was offered a good post in England, but it meant I'd be dependent on a man I don't like. A rough life with liberty is better than luxurious servitude."
"The latter has some advantages," Scott rejoined. "To-night, for example, you could enjoy a good dinner instead of moldy beans and rancid pork, put on clean clothes, and go to a concert or theater. Then you'd get up next morning in a warm room, with a bath and hot water at hand, instead of freezing by a stove that had burned low. Anyhow, admitting that you're obstinate and hate to go where others want, I've a notion that you felt you had to see me out when you refused that post."
"Oh, well," said Thirlwell awkwardly. "In a sense, I was bound—"
"By your scruples? But we'll let it go," Scott rejoined. "I expect we're all to some extent the slaves of an idea. I'd pull out to-morrow if I didn't feel I had to make my mining venture good before I quit. All the same, it looks as if I'd save my money by stopping now."
He looked up, for there was a knock at the door and a man who had gone down to the settlements came in. His skin cap was pulled down to meet the collar of his coat, leaving only his eyes and nose exposed, and fine frost-dried snow stuck to the shaggy furs.
"It's surely fierce to-night," he said. "Thought we couldn't make it when we met the wind on Loon Lake, but there was no shelter on the beach and our tea had run out. I brought a letter for Mr. Thirlwell along."
"Nothing else?" Scott asked.
The man said there was nothing, and when he went away Scott smiled.
"Well, that's a relief! I had expected a reminder that we hadn't paid our last bill for tools. But I guess you want to read your letter."
Thirlwell felt a thrill of satisfaction as he recognized the hand, for it was some time since Agatha had written to him. He got thoughtful as he read the letter, and when he had finished put it down and lighted his pipe.
"I'd like you to listen to this and tell me what you think," he said.
Scott make a sign of agreement, and when Thirlwell had read Agatha's account of her meeting with the burglar and Stormont, he remarked: "It's a nice frank letter, and Miss Strange has some talent for dramatic narrative."
"That's not what I meant," said Thirlwell, with an impatient frown. "What d'you think about Stormont's visit?"
"On the whole, I imagine Miss Strange ran less risk of being robbed when she met the burglar."
"So I think. But why did the fellow go?"
Scott looked thoughtful. "Though Stormont's said to be a rogue, he's certainly not a fool. You seem to take it for granted that Strange never found the lode, but I'm not sure. Anyhow, it looks as if Stormont didn't agree with you."
"But how did he hear about the lode?"
"It's not very plain, but I have a suspicion. There's a curious thing; I don't see much difference between Stormont's object and the burglar's. Both seemed to want the letters Strange wrote to the girl."
"Now I come to think of it, perhaps there wasn't much difference. The fellow stole nothing, although he broke open the writing-table and Miss Strange's trunk. She says he disturbed nothing else. But the matter gets no clearer."
Scott smiled. "My explanation is that Stormont tried to buy the letters after he found they couldn't be stolen."
"But he'd have to trust the man he hired to break into the house; and this would put him in the fellow's power."
"I reckon the man told him about the lode; Miss Strange states that he was lame," Scott remarked in a meaning tone. "Where has Black Steve been since he left this neighborhood?"
Thirlwell started. "It's possible you have got near the truth. Nobody knows as much as Driscoll about Strange's prospecting. But I must answer the letter. What am I to say?"
"If you tell her to have nothing to do with Stormont, it ought to be enough in the meantime," Scott replied. "You could send down your answer when, the next Hudson's Bay breeds come along."
They were silent for a few minutes, and then Scott resumed: "I understand Miss Strange means to look for the vein next summer and you are going. Why is that, since you don't believe her father's tale?"
"She's resolved to go and I can help. When she's persuaded the ore can't be found she'll be content to give the notion up. I don't want the thing to occupy her thoughts until it becomes a kind of mania, as it did with Strange."
"I imagine she's an attractive girl."
"She is attractive; but that has nothing to do with it," Thirlwell replied with a frown. "I'm not in love with Miss Strange. To begin with, I can't support a wife, and marriage hasn't much charm for me. Then I think she's clever enough to make her mark, and will stick to her occupation until she does, if she gets rid of this foolish notion of looking for the ore."
"I see," said Scott, with some dryness. "You feel sorry for the girl and want to save her from getting like Strange? Well, it's a chivalrous object; but there's a thing you don't seem to have thought of yet. Prospecting a big belt of country is a long job, and if you're away much of the summer, how are you going to keep your engagement with me?"
"I have thought of it," Thirlwell replied. "It's awkward—"
Scott smiled at his embarrassment. "Well, I'll let you go. In fact, I don't mind taking a stake in the expedition, in the way of food and tools."
"Miss Strange wouldn't agree."
"Very well. Suppose you locate the ore, she'll need advice and further help. Now I know something about mining; I've paid pretty high for what I've learned. I understand Miss Strange hasn't much money, and we might save her some expensive mistakes. You see, I haven't much hope of getting down to pay-dirt here."
Thirlwell pondered. He liked and trusted Scott, and the thought of being able to offer Agatha the help she might need was attractive; but he meant to be honest and exercised some self-control.
"It would pay you better to leave the thing alone. I feel pretty sure the ore's a freak of Strange's imagination."
"It's possible," Scott agreed. "Go and see."
Thirlwell knocked out and filled his pipe; and then remarked with some diffidence: "You stated that you didn't think you had enough capital to keep the Clermont going long."
"I haven't enough," Scott said, smiling. "But I have some rich relations who might finance me if I could show them a sure snap. I'd like to do so, anyhow, because, after spending most all my money, I feel I've got to make good."
"I can understand this. Why did you come up here in the beginning?"
"It's rather a long story and I reckon it starts with a canoe trip I made in the North one fall. I had then begun a business in which family influence could give me a lift. Well, it was Indian summer; mosquitoes dying off, lakes and rivers all asleep in the pale sunshine. As we paddled and portaged through the woods I felt I'd got into another world. Wanted to stop forever and began to hate the cities; the feeling wasn't new, but I hadn't got it really strong till then. Sometimes at night, when the loons were calling on the lake and my packers were asleep, I'd lie by the fire and speculate what civilization was worth and if a man might not do better to cut loose and live by his gun and traps. Well, of course, it was a crank notion, and I wasn't all a fool. I stopped longer than I meant, but I pulled out and got to work again."
Scott paused and smoked meditatively before he resumed: "It was of no use; the city palled. Don't know that I'm a cynic or much of a philosopher, but the folks I knew seemed to have a wrong idea of values. Spent their best efforts grubbing for money and trying to take the lead in smart society. They made me tired with their hustling about things that didn't matter; I wanted the woods and the quiet the river hardly breaks."
"You went back?"
"I did," said Scott. "Felt I had to go. It was winter and the cold was fierce, but we made four hundred miles with the hand-sledge across the snow, and when I came out with some fingers frozen I was nine pounds heavier. Used to sit in my office afterwards and dream about the glittering lakes and the stiff white pines; saw them crowding round the lonely camps, when I ought to have been studying the market reports. Well, I couldn't concentrate on buying and selling things. Betting on the market and getting after other people's money seemed a pretty mean business." He paused and added with a twinkle: "That's how I felt then, and I don't know that I've changed my opinions much."
"All the same, you're anxious to make your mining pay."
"It isn't logical, but I was born a white man and had got civilized. You can't altogether get rid of what you're taught when young, and it's harder when the notions you inherit are backed by your training. Well, I saw there was a danger of my turning out a hobo if I went back North without a job. I must get some work, and when Brinsmead came with a proposition about the Clermont vein I took down my shingle and located here with him."
"But what about your relations? Did they object?"
"Not much. On the whole, I reckon they were satisfied to see me go. They had long decided I was a crank, and since I was bound to do something foolish, I'd better do it where I wouldn't disgrace them. That's about all. We're here, and I don't know that I'd go back if the road was open. Would you?"
Thirlwell pondered. It was a hard life he led, working, for the most part, in the dark underground, for when money was scarce and wages high he could not be satisfied to superintend. Scott, indeed, worked like a paid hand, and they had fought a long, and it seemed a losing, battle against forces whose strength science cannot yet properly measure. The fish-oil lamps sometimes went out in poisonous air while they examined an unsafe working face; props broke under a load they ought to have borne; and now and then the roof came down. Rock pillars crushed, massive stones fell out where one least expected, and there was always the icy water that the pump could not keep under and the frost could not stop.
Yet there was something that thrilled one in the stubborn fight, and a strange ascetic satisfaction in proving how much flesh and blood could stand. One felt stronger for bracing one's tired body against fresh fatigue, and watchfulness in the face of constant danger toned up the brain. Then, after all, the vast, silent wilderness had a seductive charm.
"This country draws, and holds what it gets," he said. "I'm satisfied to stop here, as long as I'm young."
For a time they smoked in silence, and presently went to bed, tired with exhausting labor and glad to rest in dreamless sleep until they began again in the bitter dawn.
STORMONT FINDS A CLUE
The Dufferin House was the best hotel in the small Ontario town, and about ten o'clock one evening Stormont read a newspaper in his comfortable room. His clerk had been some days in the town, looking into a proposed transaction in real estate, and Stormont left Winnipeg when a letter from him arrived. This was not because the business required his supervision, but because Watson, the clerk, had found out something that might prove to be important, although it might lead to his employer's wasting his time. Stormont seldom let what he called a fighting change go by.
He had eaten a good supper at about six o'clock, and after a talk with Watson and a young man whose acquaintance the clerk had made, had sent them off to see the town at his expense. This was not rash, because Stormont could trust his clerk. Now he waited their return, but it was not for Watson's benefit he had put a cigar-box and a bottle of strong liquor on the table. Much depended on Watson's tact and judgment, and Stormont felt relieved when he came in.
"I've got Drummond downstairs," the clerk said.
"Very good," said Stormont. "Had you much trouble?"
"I certainly had some. He wanted me to hire a sleigh and take a girl at a sweet-stuff store for a joy-ride. Suggested it when she was there, and I think she meant to go. Then he broke a lamp in the pool-room that cost us two dollars."
"Well, I hope you haven't overdone the thing."
"On the whole, I guess not," Watson replied. "It's hard to hit the proper mark, but I reckon he's just drunk enough."
"Then bring him up," said Stormont, and in a few minutes Watson came back with a young man.
The latter's skin was somewhat dark, and his coarse black hair and athletic figure hinted at a strain of Indian blood. As a matter of fact, his mother was a French-Canadian Metis, and he was born in a skin tent in the North. His clothes were cut in the latest fashion, and he looked self-confident; but he moved unsteadily and his face was flushed.
"Had a gay time, Mr. Drummond?" Stormont asked.
"You bet!" said the other, giving the clerk a patronizing smile. "This young fellow is surely a sport. Promised half the girls up-town he'd take them a sleigh-ride and broke a big lamp in the pool-room."
"You broke the lamp," Watson interrupted, with a glance at his employer.
"Oh, well," said Drummond, "perhaps I did. I certainly put the marker out. He allowed I couldn't hold my cue and was going to cut the cloth. Why, I'd play any man in this old town for fifty dollars!"
"And beat him!" said Stormont. "Watson told me how you play. But won't you sit down and take a smoke."
"I surely will," Drummond replied, and pulling up an easy chair, put his wet snow-boots on Stormont's bed, after which he lighted a cigar. "Now," he resumed, "if you have anything to say to me, you can go ahead."
"You're a store clerk, I think. It's a poor job making a profit for another man and Watson tells me you are enterprising. How'd you like to run a store of your own? If you could put up the stock to start with, I reckon you'd soon make good."
"I've figured on that," Drummond replied, with a cunning look, though Stormont saw he was flattered. "You want some money to begin, but I've a notion how I'm going to raise my pile."
Stormont nodded. He had appealed to the young man's raw vanity, but meant to work upon another emotion. "Watson tells me you came from Hamilton. Nice town and business was pretty good when I was there." He paused and asked sharply: "Why did you quit?"
Drummond hesitated and got confused. "Nothing much doing in my line; didn't see many chances, and Hamilton made me tired."
"Oh, well," said Stormont, who had given the other a hint that he knew something about his past history. "I reckon you didn't leave your employer your new address! Anyhow, store-clerking's a tame job, and you're a sport. You want to get out and give yourself a chance. Wasn't Hector Drummond, Hudson's Bay agent at the old Longue Sault factory, your father?"
"He was. Don't know how you know, but you've got it right."
Stormont smiled. The young man had told Watson much about himself one night when he was drunk. "I don't think it matters. You'd like to get rich and hinted that you knew how to make your pile."
"I know where there's a silver lode."
"Ah!" said Stormont, "that's interesting! But it's an expensive business to prove and develop a mineral claim, and you couldn't do much alone. I expect you know this, since you stop here clerking for a few dollars a week. You want help."
"The man who looks for that ore will want my help," Drummond rejoined.
"Well, it's my business to speculate in mines, and I'm generally willing to pay for a useful tip. But it's got to be useful. I don't like to be stung, and the woods are full of dead-beat prospectors ready to put you wise about rich pay-dirt for a dollar or two."
"My tip's all right," Drummond declared in a defiant tone. "I'll show you! When the old man was at Longue Sault he had a clerk called Strange, and sent him off somewhere one day with a sledge and dogs. Strange came back with a bagful of mineral specimens, and said he'd struck it rich, but the old man knew nothing about mining and didn't want any prospectors mussing up things round there. By and by Strange left the factory, and the old man pulled out and brought me South. Located at Owen Sound, and told me about Strange's specimens one day when he was very sick. Said he'd reckoned the fellow was a crank, but he'd kept two or three specimens and a mining man told him they carried good silver."
"Did Strange tell your father where he found the specimens?" Stormont asked carelessly.
Drummond grinned. "Since the old man sent him, I guess he knew where he went. But I've got to know what my tip is worth before I tell you."
"Certainly," said Stormont. "Suppose we take a drink?" He filled a glass and gave it Drummond, but was silent for some minutes afterwards.
The young man was not as drunk as he thought, and had obviously some caution left. The heady liquor, however, might make a difference.
"Well," he resumed, when Drummond put down his glass, "you're ambitious and enterprising. I expect you'd like to own a share in a paying mine?"
"You bet I would; I'm surely going to!"
"Then you had better let me help. It will cost you something to locate the vein, and you won't find people ready to believe your tale and put up the money," Stormont replied.
He saw by Drummond's look that he had tried to sell his secret; but the lad answered: "Cut it out! What's your offer?"
"Fifty dollars now, and five hundred when we find the lode, if it's worth working. Then a share that will depend on the cost of development and the profit."
"Shucks!" said Drummond. "I want five hundred dollars before I start."
"Then you had better try somebody else," said Stormont, smiling. "It's possible that all you can tell me isn't worth five dollars."
"I'll show you! Gimme a hundred now and 'nother drink."
"Take fifty, or I quit," said Stormont, who passed him the bottle.
Drummond drained his glass. "You're mean, but I gotter make a start. Where's the bills?"
Stormont gave him some paper money, and then turned to the clerk. "See about mailing the letters, Watson."
The clerk went out, knowing why he had been sent. His employer trusted him where he was forced, but did not want him to hear what Drummond had to say.
When Watson had gone Drummond knitted his brows, as if trying to remember something. "The vein runs out on the face of a cliff, 'bout forty paces from the first rampike pine; there's three or four rampikes, but the fire hadn't gone far into the bush."
"Not much of a clue! There are patches of burned forest all over the country," Stormont remarked.
"Don't interrupt!" said Drummond, with a frown. "It's pretty hard to remember. Give me 'nother drink. I wanter get it right."
Stormont filled his glass and he resumed in an unsteady voice: "Cliff rises from the creek in a little round hollow. There's a big rock near the top of the divide opposite—"
"Go on. How does the creek run?"
"You're hustling me," Drummond grumbled. "I wanter think. It's important. Knowing how the creek runs fixes where she is." He paused, and a vague distrust of Stormont entered his bemused brain. He had got the fifty dollars and saw, with drunken cunning, that it might be prudent to keep something back. "She runs south."
"South?" exclaimed Stormont, who knew that the natural drainage of the region is north-east to James Bay.
"Sure," said Drummond, with a sullen look. "Strange told the old man, and the old man told me."
Stormont pondered. If the creek flowed south, it drained a subsidiary basin and probably filled a lake from which a river ran north or east. The clue was worth fifty dollars because it would simplify the search for the lode.
"How does the creek lie from the factory?"
"'Bout south-west," said Drummond in a thick, drowsy voice. "There isn't a factory at Longue Sault now. Company moved the post after the old man left."
"How far is the creek from where the post was?"
"Lemme think," Drummond muttered, and his eyes half closed. "Old man reckoned Strange made it in a fortnight's march."
"From the creek, or from the place where he was sent? Or do you mean the double journey?"
"Don't know," Drummond answered dully. "Old man said fortnight. Told you all I remember."
Then he slipped down in the big chair, his head drooped forward, and he fell into a drunken sleep. Stormont got up and leaned against the table. He had borne some strain in the last few minutes, because it had been obvious that Drummond was overcome by liquor and would soon be unable to talk, while when he woke up sober he might repent his rashness. Now Stormont imagined he had told him all he knew, and it ought to be worth fifty dollars. Lighting a cigar, he waited until his clerk came back, when he indicated Drummond, who lay, snoring heavily, with his dirty boots on Stormont's bed.
"Wake the drunken fool and see him home."
Watson had some trouble to get Drummond on his feet and after Stormont shut the door there was a heavy thud. It looked as if Drummond had fallen down the stairs, but Stormont smiled. He had done with the fellow, and if Watson could get him out of the hotel, it did not matter if he reached home or not. Ringing for the bell-boy, he gave orders about being called in the morning, as he meant to leave by an early west-bound train.
ON THE TRAIL
Thirlwell had been to the railroad settlement, and returning with Father Lucien, camped on the trail not far from the mine. The day had been unusually warm and at noon the pines dripped in the sun and the snow got damp. At dusk it began to freeze and a haze hung about the woods and obscured the moon, but, by contrast with the rigors of winter, Thirlwell sitting by the camp-fire, felt almost uncomfortably warm. Father Lucien had taken off his furs and sat with a blanket over his shoulders on a bundle of dry twigs. Both had hung their moccasins up to dry near the heap of snapping branches. Wreaths of aromatic smoke slowly drifted past and faded in the mist.
"One feels spring coming," said Father Lucien. "We have had a foretaste to cheer us while winter lasts. The sun is moving north, and up here, it always thrills me to watch the light drive back the dark. One could make a homily on that."
"The dark soon returns," Thirlwell remarked, "I hate the long nights."
"There are men who like the dark, in spite of the terrors it has for some."
"I wonder whether you are thinking of a particular example," Thirlwell suggested, remembering a night watch he had kept while the blizzard raged about Driscoll's shack.
"One does think of examples. Perhaps we generalize too much. It is easy to let an individual stand for a type."
"If the individual is Black Steve Driscoll, I hope he's an uncommon type."
Father Lucien made a sign of agreement. "Driscoll was in my thoughts. A strange man; dogged and sullen, with a heart that kindness cannot touch. Yet one feels he is afraid."
"He was afraid when he was ill; I wonder why. The fellow has no religious or moral code. But he drinks hard and perhaps he's superstitious."
"What is superstition?" the missionary asked with a smile. "The old atavistic fear of the dark and the mysterious dangers that threatened our savage ancestors? Or is it an instinctive knowledge that there are supernatural powers, able to punish and reward?"
"I don't know," said Thirlwell, who mused and watched the smoke drift past.
The bush was very quiet; he could hear nothing but the crackle of the fire. Now and then a blaze leaped up and pierced the shadows among the pine trunks. A few yards away, the trees got blurred and melted into the encircling gloom. In one place, however, there was an opening, and when he turned his back to the light, he saw a faint glimmer in the mist that indicated the frozen lake. Although he was used to the wilds, he felt the silence and desolation.
"It's easy to be superstitious here," he resumed. "One feels that human power is limited and loses one's confidence. I expect something of the kind accounts for Driscoll's nervous fears. In the city, he would have no time to brood; he'd spend his days in a noisy workshop and his evenings in a crowded tenement or saloon. But if he's scared of the dark and loneliness, why doesn't he pull out?"
"Human nature's stubborn. A man with a compelling object may be afraid and fight his fears."
"I'd like to know what Driscoll's object is. Since the night in his shack, when the fellow was sick, I've wondered why Strange's canoe capsized. Strange was a clever voyageur; so's Black Steve."
Father Lucien looked at him curiously and there was a hint of shrinking in his eyes. "I cannot tell; perhaps we shall never know! But if there was foul play, what would Driscoll gain?"
"It's hard to see," Thirlwell agreed. "I could understand it if Steve had afterwards staked a claim, but nobody has found the ore yet. There's another curious thing; I don't see what he'd gain by leaving you to starve, as I think he meant to do."
"No," said Father Lucien sharply, "that is impossible! Besides, Driscoll was trapping some distance off."
"A white man stood looking down at you and then stole away, although he saw you had no camp outfit," Thirlwell insisted.
"He may have been short of food and came to borrow. Seeing I had none, he was perhaps afraid to share any he had left with me."
Thirlwell shook his head. "I haven't met a prospector who would let a white man starve; they're a rough but generous lot. In fact, the only man I know who's capable of the thing is Driscoll."
Father Lucien did not answer and presently lay down, but Thirlwell sat for a time, thinking while he dried his moccasins. The missionary was something of an idealist, although he knew the weaknesses of human nature, but Thirlwell was practical. Somehow he had got entangled in the complications that sprang from Strange's supposititious discovery of the ore, but he did not want to break loose. Agatha Strange needed him; she had admitted that there was nobody else to whom she could look for help and advice. So far, he could find no clue to the web of mystery that surrounded the matter and had caught them both, but he meant to search.
When the moccasins were dry, he began to wonder why he was anxious to help the girl, since he was not in love with her. In a sense, it was perhaps his duty, but this did not account for his keenness. He gave it up, and after throwing some branches on the fire lay down and went to sleep.
The fire was low and gave out no light when he wakened. He felt cold and remembered with some annoyance that he had not gathered enough wood to last until morning. He had not brought his watch, partly because he had fastened a small compass on the chain, but he knew that day would not break for some hours yet. The mist was thinner, although it had not gone, and looking up he guessed the moon's height by the elusive glimmer in the haze. It was about four o'clock, and he imagined he had wakened when the heat of his body had sunk to its lowest; but was not altogether satisfied, since he had slept undisturbed by much keener frost.
For all that, it was a nuisance to get up and look for dead branches in the dark, and he waited, reluctant to throw off his blanket, for some minutes, and then roused himself with a jerk. He imagined he heard voices out on the lake. He glanced at Father Lucien, but the latter was fast asleep. Thirlwell wondered whether he himself had gone to sleep again and dreamed, but half-consciously fixed his eyes on the opening that commanded a view of the lake. He could see it indistinctly; a smooth white plain running back into the dark. The snow caught a faint reflection although the moon was hidden, but nothing broke the even surface.
Then Thirlwell got up abruptly, for he heard a shout. It sounded as if somebody had given an order, and he felt disturbed. There was, he knew, no ground for this. The few white trappers and prospectors who now and then entered the wilds were, for the most part, good-humored, sociable men; the Metis and Indians were friendly. Indeed, the proper line was for him to invite the strangers to share his camp, but he hesitated. He had got suspicious since he promised to help in the search for Strange's silver, and trappers and Indians did not travel at night.
As he pondered the matter, a dark object came out of the misty background on the lake. It was indistinct, but by its height and slow movements he knew it was a man. It vanished presently where the pines cut off his view, but three others followed after an interval, two apparently hauling a loaded sledge. They crossed the stretch of ice that Thirlwell could see, and when the trees shut them out he forgot to gather wood and lighted his pipe.
The hazy figures had an unsubstantial, ghostly look; he might have imagined he had not really seen them had he not heard the leader's shout. Then it was hard to see why they were traveling in the dark, since they must leave the ice soon and the trail was rough. He thought their leader knew the country, because their coming down the lake indicated that they had taken a short but difficult line from the settlements. But one would expect a man who knew the country to make for and stop at the mine, which was not far off. Thirlwell hoped to reach it next day, and wondered whether the others meant to pass it at night. If so, it would indicate that they did not want to be seen.
When he had smoked out his pipe he gathered some wood, and then, as Father Lucien had not wakened, thought he would look for the others' trail and see which way they had gone. They were traveling north, but two routes the Indians used started from the head of the lake. He found the marks of the sledge-runners, and then noted with a thrill of excitement that there was something curious about one of the men's tracks. The steps were uneven; one impression was sharper than the other.
Imagining that the party would camp soon, Thirlwell determined to follow and presently came to a rough slope where the trail left the ice. Caution was now needed, because he could not see far and might be heard if he made much noise in pushing through the bush. The silence that brooded over the woods indicated that the others had stopped. The pines were small and tangled, but he could see where the sledge had gone and when he reached the summit a gleam of light sprang up in the valley below. Thirlwell thought the man who made the fire had chosen the spot well if he meant its light to be hidden.
The wood was thin on the slope he went down and it was difficult to keep in the gloom. The glimmering moonlight was brighter and his figure would be visible against the snow as he crossed the openings. When he was some distance from the fire he stopped and studied his line of approach.
The men were moving about on his side of the fire. Their figures were distinct, but he could not see their faces, and if he crossed the belt of rather open ground, the light would fall on him. If he could creep up on the other side, the fire would be between them and, shining in the men's faces, prevent their seeing far. The trouble was, that the wood behind the camp looked tangled and thick, and he doubted if he could get through without making a noise. Something, however, must be risked, and stealing across the opening to the next tree, he presently reached a belt of thicker wood.
He could not be seen now, but he made a circuit round the fire before he began to approach it from the other side. His progress was slow and he felt anxious, because it was possible that the men had moved round the fire while he struggled through the bush. Still he thought they had not done so, because he had seen one throwing up a snow-bank behind which they meant to sleep. They would probably cook their meal and sit down on that side in the shelter of the bank. When he left the thick bush he saw that his reasoning was good, but he had yet to get near enough and the fire was burning well. There was not much wind, but the red blaze leaped up and sank, throwing out clouds of sparks, while a trail of smoke drifted about the camp. The resinous wood, however, crackled fiercely and he hoped this would drown the noise he made.
There was nothing to hide him for some distance, and then a patch of juniper scrub and some willows ran towards the camp. If he could reach them he would be safe, and he crawled across the open space and lay behind the first juniper while he got his breath. There was nothing to indicate that the others had heard him, and a few minutes later he stopped again at the edge of a gap where a fire had run through the scrub. He could see the men, though he could not distinguish their faces. One seemed to be looking in his direction, and Thirlwell felt his heart beat but did not move. He had a background of dark bushes and it was wiser to keep still than drop into the snow.
Presently the man stooped, as if to pick up something, and Thirlwell, stealing forward, sank down among the willows. They rustled as he crept between their stems, but the fire was snapping furiously and after he had gone a few yards he thought he was near enough. Rising nearly upright, he pushed the dry branches aside. Since they broke his outline, it would be hard to see him by the unsteady light.
The flames tossed and wavered, throwing a fierce red glow about the camp. Pine-trunks and snow-bank stood out sharply from the shadow, and faded again. The light played on the men's faces for a few moments and then left them blurred and dim. Thirlwell waited until one threw on some branches and a blaze and cloud of sparks sprang up. The glare touched the fellow's face and Thirlwell thrilled with excitement as he saw it was Driscoll.
He did not know the others, but one had a rather pale color, as if he had come from the cities, and his fur-coat looked new and good. The sledge carried an unusually heavy load, and among the provision bags he noted some iron drills and a small wooden box such as giant-powder is packed in. It was a prospecting party and he had seen enough.
Creeping back into the scrub, he set off for camp. When he got there Father Lucien was asleep, and when they resumed the march next morning Thirlwell told him nothing about the other party. He thought the missionary had difficulties enough of his own without being involved in the trouble that seemed to follow all who had anything to do with Strange's silver lode.
THE PROSPECTORS' RETURN
It was snowing, but there was no wind and the shack was warm when, on the evening after his return, Thirlwell sat, smoking, by the stove. Now and then a mass of snow rumbled down the iron roof near the spot where the hot pipe went through, and the draughts had lost their former sting. The air in the room felt different; it was not humid yet, but one no longer noticed the harsh dryness that is caused by intense frost. The long arctic winter was coming to an end.
By and by Scott, sitting opposite Thirlwell, said thoughtfully, "Driscoll's outfit will have to hustle, if they mean to do much prospecting and get back while the ice is good. I'll give them a month, and if they're not out then, they'll have trouble."
Thirlwell made a sign of agreement. Rivers and lakes are numerous in the North, and in winter one can travel smoothly on the ice. When the latter rots and cracks, voyageurs and prospectors wait until the melting snow sweeps the grinding floes away and canoes can be launched. To push through tangled bush and across soft muskegs costs heavy labor.
"They were taking up a big load and couldn't march fast," he said.
"I understand you don't know Stormont?"
"I know his character—and unless he's badly slandered that's enough! I haven't met him, but I'm nearly sure it was a city man I saw in Driscoll's camp."
"Stormont's indicated," Scott replied. "I reckon Driscoll went to him because he needed capital; but he wouldn't put another fellow on the track. If we take it for granted that he did go, the mystery about Strange's letters is cleared up. It's characteristic that Stormont tried to steal them before he made Miss Strange his offer."
"In a way, it's curious that he did make an offer!"
Scott smiled. "He didn't run much risk. It would be hard to frame an agreement out of which Stormont couldn't wriggle; I've met the fellow, and Brinsmead has grounds for knowing his methods. Anyhow, it's plain that he thinks it worth while to spend some money in trying to find the lode, and on such matters his judgment is said to be pretty good. Then I imagine Black Steve knows more about Strange's prospecting trips than you suspect."
"My notion is, that nobody knows much about the lode."
"Well," said Scott, "it looks like that. Strange is dead, and I don't imagine he took Black Steve very far into his confidence; though he may have given him a hint when he was drunk. But there's another man, whom nobody seems to have thought of yet."
"The Hudson's Bay agent at the factory where Strange was employed. Strange was young then, and was probably frank and enthusiastic about his find. I daresay he gave the agent all the particulars he could recollect when he saw the fellow doubted his tale. His memory was, no doubt, pretty good, since he'd seen the lode a week or two before."
"They have pulled down the factory and I expect the agent's dead," Thirlwell replied. "If not, he must be an old man and I don't know where he is. I'm not persuaded yet that Strange did find the ore; but if it hadn't snowed, I'd have followed Stormont's trail. It would be interesting to know where he means to look."
He frowned as he lighted his pipe, because it was too late to satisfy his curiosity. The prospectors had vanished into the trackless desolation, and now deep snow had fallen the wilds would hide them well. Scott pondered for a few minutes and then resumed: "You mean to help Miss Strange put this matter over, although you don't believe in the lode?"
"Yes," said Thirlwell, "I've promised her."
"Then you're up against two hard men who have got a start, and one of them is dangerous."
"Black Steve? Well, I believe he meant to leave Father Lucien to starve, but I don't see why."
"You need help yourself," Scott rejoined dryly. "When Driscoll was ill and delirious he talked in a curious way, and when he got better may have had some recollection of being badly scared. If so, I expect he imagined he said more than he did and had, so to speak, given himself away. As a matter of fact, he said enough to be suspicious. Since he was delirious, he probably didn't know you were there, and it might be prudent not to let him know. It's possible he thought Father Lucien knew too much, and saw his opportunity of getting rid of him."
Thirlwell started. "It is possible! I'm glad I told you about my watch at the shack. I didn't at first; the things I suspected looked ridiculous."
"In future you had better tell me all you can. My opinion is, that you have undertaken a very tough job. For all that, I'm getting curious about the lode, and would rather like to have a stake in the venture, if Miss Strange agrees when she comes up."
"She won't agree unless she finds the ore. Then, of course, she'd need help and money."
"Very well," said Scott, and they talked about something else.
For some weeks they said nothing more about the silver vein. Part of the roof of the main heading in the mine came down, and they had afterwards to contend with a dangerous flow of water. Extra timbering was needed and the men risked their lives as they wedged the props under the cracking beams, while now and then they worked for a shift with buckets to help the clanging pump. Their clothes were always wet, and they were generally smeared with mud when they came up to eat and sleep. The miners grumbled, and Scott and Thirlwell felt the mental and physical strain. They were highly strung and often irritable, while when they sat by the stove when work was over they only talked about the difficulties they had struggled with all day and others that must be met in the morning.
In the meantime, the thaw began. The snow softened and got honeycombed by the drops from the trees. One sank to the knees in trampled slush among the sawn-off stumps about the shaft-head. The ice rotted, and in places where the current ran fast large floes broke off, and drove down stream until they were stopped by the thick ice in the slacks. Above the Shadow Rapids, however, there was, for a time, no break in the frozen surface, and one evening Scott and Thirlwell sat listening to the growl of the rising flood in the open channel it had made near the mine. The sound swelled and sank, and at intervals they heard rain patter on the roof.
"In a week or two the canoes will be out," Scott remarked. "There's a big head of water coming down and I guess the jamb that's backing up the stream won't stand till morning."
"Some of it's going now; that's an extra large floe," said Thirlwell as a detonating crash rang across the woods. Then there was a roar that was pierced by a high, strident note, and he knew the floe was tearing open upon a rock.
The shrill scream died away, but the turmoil of the current swelled, and knowing what would happen soon, they waited with strained attention and let their pipes go out. The mine buildings stood back from the bank and they ran no risk, but nobody can listen unmoved when the ice breaks up on a river of the North.
Presently there was a deafening concussion like the shock when a giant gun is fired. The shack trembled as if struck by a battering ram, and Thirlwell felt his nerves tingle. After the concussion came a roar that grew into an overwhelming din, and they braced themselves against the strain; one could not bear that appalling noise very long. It subsided a little into a confusion of jarring sounds that were sometimes distinguishable and sometimes drowned each other. Massy floes shocked and smashed, and tore apart upon the ledges with a noise like the ripping of woven fabric. Others, lifted out of the water, ground across those that stuck fast, and some crashed against the rocky bank, throwing huge blocks among the pines.
This lasted for a time, and then the uproar got bearable and gradually sank. There were intervals when one could hear the turmoil of the liberated flood as it rolled by in swollen fury. The intervals lengthened, and by and by Thirlwell got on his feet with a sigh of relief.
"You never get used to hearing the ice break up. It's tremendous!" he said. "This is a very stern country. Sometimes it frightens one—"
He stopped abruptly and listened. The uproar was sinking fast and in a lull he heard footsteps outside. Then the door was pushed open and a man staggered in. His fur-coat was torn and muddy, his feet came through his pulp moccasins, and the water that drained from him made a pool on the floor. Three others followed and stood, dripping, in the light, while Scott and Thirlwell gazed at them. Then the first dropped into a chair and leaned his arms on the table as if overcome by fatigue. His face was gaunt and his eyes were half shut.
"The boss is pretty well used up," said one of the others and Scott crossed the floor.
"Stormont," he said, "you look as if you had been up against it hard."
Stormont lifted his head and Thirlwell thought his eyes got like a wolf's.
"I'm starving! No food the last two days."
"Not much before!" one of the rest remarked.
"Been on mighty short rations since we hit the backtrail. Had a tough job to make it; had to leave our blankets and truck."
"We can give you a meal and a place to sleep. But where have you been?"
"Up north," another answered vaguely, and Scott, recognizing his caution, smiled as he turned to the last of the party, who stood near the door.
"You look fresher than the others, Steve. However, you're used to the country and I expect you brought your partners down."
"That's so," Driscoll growled. "Didn't think they'd make it. They're a tender-footed crowd!"
In the meantime, Thirlwell studied the fellow. Driscoll was wet and ragged; his face was thin, but inscrutably sullen. Unlike the rest, he did not look overcome by fatigue. When Scott spoke he gave him a dull glance and then fixed his eyes on the floor. Thirlwell had noted something unusual in his comrade's manner. Scott's voice had an ironical note and his look did not indicate much sympathy. In the North, a demand for food is seldom refused, but Scott obviously meant to be satisfied with supplying the party's urgent needs. With this Thirlwell agreed.
Then Scott said to Driscoll, "You had better take your friends to the bunk-house and tell the cook to make you supper. You know where to get blankets."
Stormont got up with an effort, and when he went out with the others Scott smiled.
"I'm not going back on my duty, but I don't want that outfit in my shack," he said.
Next morning after breakfast Stormont came in. He had to some extent recovered from his fatigue, but looked worn and dispirited.
"I guess I owe you some thanks," he said.
"I don't know if you do or not," Scott answered coolly. "In the bush, a starving man is, so to speak, entitled to ask for food and shelter. I couldn't refuse."
Stormont gave him a keen glance. "Well, there's another thing. It's a long trail to the railroad and I want to buy stores enough to see us out."
"Then I suppose I must let you have supplies; but you can't expect to get them as cheap as at the settlements. In fact, you'll have to pay my price."
"That needn't break the deal," Stormont replied. "I know when there's no use in kicking."
"An unsuccessful prospecting trip is an expensive undertaking," Scott said meaningly. "Then there's the disappointment. You would have got a big lift if you'd been lucky enough to find Miss Strange's silver."
"The silver is not Miss Strange's. The law gives a mineral vein to the person who stakes it off and records it first."
"That is so," Scott agreed. "Well, you don't look as if you had staked a valuable claim! I suppose you stopped too long trying to find the vein, and the ice was unsafe when you left. However, you want supplies to carry you down to the settlement, and if you'll come along to the store, we'll see what I've got."
They went out, and in the afternoon Stormont's party took the trail to the South.
STORMONT DISOWNS A DEBT
The general store was empty, and Drummond, leaning on the counter, frowned as he glanced at the clock. It was a few minutes after the time for closing and he had been busily occupied all day. Besides, he had an engagement at the pool-room and thought he would be late. If so, a man whom he knew he could beat would probably begin a game with somebody else, and he would miss an opportunity of winning two or three dollars. This was annoying, because Drummond needed the money, but he had other grounds for feeling dissatisfied.
Keeping store was monotonous and rather humiliating work that left one very little time for amusement. He could drive a fast horse as well as other young men he met up town, play a clever card game, and beat his friends at pool. His talents were obviously wasted in measuring dry-goods and weighing flour. Moreover, since meeting Stormont he had been extravagant and got into debt. There was no need to be economical when he had been promised a share in a rich mining claim.
Then he wondered with misgivings what the farmer who had gone into the back office was talking about, and hearing angry voices, felt sorry he had made some alterations in the man's order. Certain stale goods carried a commission if the salesman could work them off, but the thing needed tact and a knowledge of the customer's temper. Drummond feared he had been imprudent.
In the meantime, he looked about the store with a feeling of disgust. The long room, with its cracked, board walls and dusty floor, was uncomfortably warm, and smelt of hot iron, dry-goods, and old cheese. Drummond had neglected to regulate the draught when he filled the rusty stove, and now felt that one could not expect a spirited young man to spend his days in such a place. Anyhow, it was after closing time, and sitting on the counter he lighted a cigarette, letting it stick to his under lip. This was the latest fashion and gave one a sporting look. Soon after he began to smoke, the farmer came out of the office.
"You can send for the truck when you like; I've no use for goods like that," he said. "Next time you pack me a dud lot I'll cut out your account. If you and the sporting guy who's sitting on your counter thought me a sucker, I guess I've put you wise!"
He went down the steps into the street, and the lean, hard-faced storekeeper turned to Drummond with an ominous frown.
"Get off that counter! You make me tired to look at you, with your dude clothes and a cigar-root hanging out of your mouth. Throw the blamed thing away and put up the canned stuff you left about."
Drummond felt tempted to refuse, but his employer's eye was on him and he obeyed sullenly.
"When you've finished, you can clean up that row of shelves," the other resumed. "Then stack the flour and sugar bags where they're kept. Guess you reckoned to leave the truck all night where the transfer man dumped it. If you can't serve a customer, I'll see you keep the store straight!"
Drummond imagined the work would occupy him for an hour and might spoil his clothes. Besides, if he gave way, his employer might make fresh encroachments on his evenings, and he thought the fellow wanted to goad him to revolt.
"No, sir," he said. "It's closing time. I'm going to quit."
"If you quit now, you quit for good! Don't know why I've kept you, anyway!"
"I know," said Drummond, who resolved to be firm. If his employer really meant to get rid of him, he risked nothing, but if not, he might win some advantage. "You couldn't get another clerk to take my job for the wages you pay."
"Well," said the other grimly, "I'm willing to try. It's a sure thing I couldn't get a man who'd muss up the store like you. Come to me for your money and light out when you like."
He went out, banging the door, and Drummond sat down, rather limply, on a dry-goods bale. After all, it was something of a shock to find himself dismissed, but in a few minutes he gathered confidence. Stormont had given him fifty dollars and promised him a share in the silver mine, and although he had soon spent the money, he would go to Winnipeg, ask for another payment, and see what progress the fellow was making. If the vein had not yet been located, Stormont would, no doubt, find him a job. In fact, the only trouble was that when he had bought his ticket he would not have enough money left to pay his bill at the boarding-house.
Four days later, he left the town, and reaching Winnipeg one afternoon, began to inquire about Stormont in the great, domed, marble-paved waiting-room. To his surprise, the officials he questioned knew nothing about the man, and when one sent him to the inquiry office, the fashionably dressed lady clerk was ignorant. She, however, threw a directory on the counter and told him haughtily that he could look for the address.
Drummond found it, and walking along Main Street, turned up Portage Avenue. There was a block of traffic at the corner where the broad roads cross, and close by a crowd had gathered to read the bulletins on the front of a newspaper office. Stopping for a few minutes, Drummond studied the row of tall buildings, but saw that the number he wanted was farther on. There was, however, an imposing block some distance ahead, but this turned out to be a huge department store, and afterwards the buildings got smaller and plainer. It began to look as if Stormont was not as important a man as he had thought, and he was conscious of some disappointment as he went on until he stopped where private houses, workshops, and shabby stores ran out towards Deer Park. Then he found the number and entered a narrow, dingy building.
It was obvious that Stormont had studied economy when he chose his office, and Drummond stopped and hesitated on a landing opposite a door that badly needed painting. He began to think he had been rash in leaving his post in the Ontario town, but nerving himself with the reflection that he had a share in a silver vein, knocked at the door. Somebody told him to come in, and he walked into a small room.
The dirty walls were hung with plans of building lots and surveys of the forest belt in Eastern Manitoba. A glass partition ran up the middle and on one side Watson sat in front of a typewriter. He looked at Drummond with surprise, but did not get up.
"Well," he said, "why have you come to town? Have you got a week off, or have you got fired?"
"You ought to know what I've come about, but I want to see the boss," Drummond rejoined.
"That's easy, anyhow," said Watson, with a grin Drummond did not like, and indicated a door in the partition.
Drummond opened the door and saw Stormont sitting at a table covered with papers. He looked up and nodded coolly.
"Hallo!" he said. "Mr. Drummond, isn't it? Sit down for a few minutes."
Then picking up a letter, he knitted his brows. He did not think Drummond could give him much trouble, but he might become something of a nuisance unless he was dealt with firmly. Stormont had not long since come back from the North, feeling disappointed and savage, for he had spent a good deal of money on the expedition. Besides, things had gone wrong at the office while he was away and he had lost some profitable business.
"What can I do for you?" he asked by and by.
"I've left the store," said Drummond. "Thought I'd locate in Winnipeg. One has better chances in the big cities, and I reckoned you could find me a job. Anyhow, I'll need some money."
"That's a sure thing. But why did you come to me for it?"
"You gave me fifty dollars—"
"When did I give you fifty dollars?" Stormont interrupted with a look of surprise.
"The evening Watson took me to your room at the Dufferin House. Besides, you promised me a share in the mine."
Stormont smiled. "That accounts for the thing! I'm afraid you were drunker than I thought."
"You did give me the money," Drummond insisted. "Are you trying to go back on your promise?"
"Oh, well," said Stormont with an indulgent smile, "in order to satisfy you, we'll ask Watson." He knocked on the partition and turned to the clerk as the latter came in. "Mr. Drummond states that I gave him fifty dollars on the evening you brought him to the Dufferin House. Do you remember anything about it?"
"Certainly not," said Watson. "You gave him a cigar and some liquor, though I thought he'd had enough. He fell down the stairs afterwards and made trouble for me when I saw him home." Watson paused and resumed with a meaning smile: "It's pretty hard to remember what happens when you've got on a big jag!"
Drummond colored angrily, but pulled himself together. "I remember I got the money and told Mr. Stormont about the ore."
"Now I come to think of it, you did tell me a curious story about a mysterious silver lode," Stormont agreed. "Somewhere in the North, wasn't it? Anyhow, I didn't give the thing much attention. You can hear tales of that kind in any miners' saloon."
"That's so," Watson supported him. "Sometimes we hear them in this office when a crank prospector comes along. All the same, they're not business propositions."
"You promised me a share in the mine," Drummond declared, and added with dark suspicion: "I guess you found the ore."
Stormont laughed ironically. "Cut it out, Mr. Drummond! It's a sure thing I haven't found a silver lode."
"If you're going to turn me down, I'll try somebody else."
"I can't object. In fact, I dare say Watson will give you the addresses of some people who speculate on mining claims. But you mustn't be disappointed if they fire you out."
Drummond's face got red and he clenched his fist, for he had already told his tale to people who heard it with amused incredulity.
"You promised you would make me rich and I've thrown up my job! I've got about five dollars and don't know what to do!"
"Well," said Stormont coolly, "there's an employment agent a few blocks up the street and as trade's pretty good it's possible he can find you a post. That's about the only thing I can think of and I'm occupied just now—"
Drummond stopped him with a savage gesture and walked out of the room.
"We have fixed him; I guess he won't bother us again," Stormont remarked.
After leaving the office, Drummond wandered moodily along the avenue and presently came to a square, past which rows of pretty wooden houses surrounded by poplars, ran towards the river bank. The snow had gone, the afternoon was warm, and finding a bench in the sun, he sat down to think. His character was complex and his thoughts involved, for he had inherited something from ancestors of different type. A touch of Indian vanity and French expansiveness was balanced by his father's Scottish caution and the Indian's stolid calm. Sometimes he was rash and impulsive, and sometimes strangely patient, but he seldom forgot an injury.
It was obvious that he had been cheated and in the meantime could get no satisfaction for the wrong he had been done. What he knew about the silver ore was worth something while he alone had the secret, but now he had told somebody else its value had disappeared. It was, however, a comfort to reflect that he had not been altogether frank with Stormont; he had kept something back that would be a useful guide when one looked for the creek. His recollection of this was hazy, but he would think about it later.
On the whole, Drummond thought Stormont had not found the ore. A hint of anger in his ironical amusement implied that he had come back disappointed; and if he imagined he had got on the right track, he would, no doubt, have been willing to pay another fifty dollars. For all that, Watson and Stormont had plotted to win his confidence, make him drunk, and find out all he knew, and this indicated that the fellow thought the vein worth looking for. When Stormont got over his disappointment he would try again.
Drummond saw that he could embarrass Stormont by selling the secret he had been cheated of to somebody else. It was amusing to think of two parties looking for the vein; the difficulty was that he did not know anybody likely to be a buyer. But he could wait, since it looked as if he had put Stormont off the track, and by and by he might find a speculator willing to believe his tale. Sooner than let Stormont locate the vein he would give, for nothing, any antagonist of the latter's all the help he could.