His guess was that they were local passengers, but wharf after wharf slipped behind them and the two still remained on board. They appeared to know nobody else on the Sarah, though once Gordon met Dustin just as he was hurrying away from the Indian woman. The little remittance man took the pains to explain to Elliot later that he was trying to find out whether the Indians knew any English.
Meteetse transferred with the other Kusiak passengers at the river junction. The field agent was not the only one on board who wondered where she was going. Selfridge was consumed with curiosity, and when she and the boy got off at Kusiak, he could restrain himself no longer. Gordon saw Wally talking with her. Meteetse showed him an envelope which evidently had an address written upon it, for the little man pointed out to her the direction in which she must go.
Since leaving Kusiak nearly two weeks before, no word had reached Gordon of Sheba. As soon as he had finished dinner at the hotel, he walked out to the Paget house and sent in his card.
Sheba came into the hall to meet him from the living-room where she had been sitting with the man she expected to marry next week. She gave a little murmur of pleasure at sight of him and held out both hands.
"I was afraid you weren't going to get back in time. I'm so glad," she told him warmly.
He managed to achieve a smile. "When is the great day?"
"Next Thursday. Of course, we're as busy as can be, but Diane says—"
A ring at the door interrupted her. Sheba stepped forward and let in an Indian woman with a little boy clinging to her hand.
"You Miss O'Neill?" she asked.
From the folds of her shawl she drew a letter. The girl glanced at the address, then opened and read what was written. She looked up, puzzled, first at the comely, flatfooted Indian woman and afterward at the handsome little brown-faced papoose. She turned to Gordon.
"This letter says I am to ask this woman who is the father of her boy. What does it mean?"
Gordon knew instantly what it meant, though he could not guess who had dealt the blow. He hesitated for an answer, and in his embarrassment she felt that which began to ring a bell of warning in her heart.
The impulse to spare her pain was stronger in him than the desire that she should know the truth.
"Send her away," he urged. "Don't ask any questions. She has been sent to hurt you."
A fawnlike fear flashed into the startled eyes. "To hurt me?"
"I am afraid so."
"But—why? I have done nobody any harm." She seemed to hold even her breathing in suspense. Only a pulse beat wildly in her white throat like the heart of an imprisoned thrush.
"Perhaps some of Macdonald's enemies," he suggested.
And at that there came a star-flash into the soft eyes and a lifted tilt to the chin cut fine as a cameo. She turned proudly to the Indian woman.
"What is it that you have to tell me about this boy's father?"
Meteetse began to speak. At the first mention of Macdonald's name Sheba's eyes dilated. Her smile, her sweet, glad pleasure at Gordon's arrival, were already gone like the flame of a blown candle. Clearly her heart was a-flutter, in fear of she knew not what. When the Indian woman told how she had first crossed the path of Macdonald, the color flamed into the cheeks of the Irish girl, but as the story progressed, the blood ebbed even from her lips.
With a swift movement of her fingers she flashed on the hall light. Her gaze searched the brown, shiny face of the little chap. She read there an affidavit of the truth of his mother's tale. The boy had his father's trick of squinting a slant look at anything he found interesting. It was impossible to see him and not recognize Colby Macdonald reincarnated.
"What is your name?" asked Sheba suddenly.
The youngster hung back shyly among the folds of the Indian woman's skirt. "Colmac," he said at last softly.
"Come!" Sheba flung open the door of the living-room and ushered them in.
Macdonald, pacing restlessly up and down the room during her absence, pulled up in his stride. He stood frowning at the native woman, then his eyes passed to Elliot and fastened upon him. The face of the Scotchman might have been chipped from granite. It was grim as that of a hanging judge.
Gordon started to explain, then stopped with a shrug. What was the use? The man would never believe him in the world.
"I'll remember this," the Alaskan promised his rival. There was a cold glitter in his eyes, a sudden flare of the devil that was blood-chilling.
"It's true, then," broke in Sheba. "You're a—a squawman. You belong to this woman."
"Nothing of the kind," he cried roughly. "That's been ended for years."
"Ended?" Sheba drew Colmac forward by the wrist. "Do you deny that this is your boy?"
The big Alaskan brushed this aside as of no moment. "I dare say he is. Anyhow I'm paying for his keep. What of it? That's all finished and done with."
"How can it be done with when—when she's the mother of your child, your wife before God?" The live eyes attacked him from the dusk that framed the oval of her pale face. Standing there straight as an aspen, the beautiful bosom rising and falling quickly while the storm waves beat through her blood, Sheba O'Neill had never made more appeal to the strong, lawless man who desired her for his wife.
"You don't understand." Macdonald's big fists were clenched so savagely that the knuckles stood out white from the brown tan of the flesh. "This is a man's country. It's new—close to nature. What he wants he takes—if he's strong enough. I'm elemental. I—"
"You wanted her—and you took her. Now you want me—and I suppose you'll take me too." Her scornful words had the sting of a whiplash.
"I've lived as all men live who have red blood in them. This woman is an incident. I've been aboveboard. She can't say I ever promised more than I've given. I've kept her and the boy. It's been no secret. If you had asked, I would have told you the whole story."
"Does that excuse you?"
"I don't need any excuse. I'm a man. That's excuse enough. You've been brought up among a lot of conventions and social lies. The one big fact you want to set your teeth into now is that I love you, that there isn't another woman on God's earth for me, and that there never will be again."
Her eyes flashed battle. "The one big fact I'm facing is that you have insulted me—that you insult me again when you mention love with that woman and boy in the room. You belong to them—go to them—and leave me alone." She had been fighting for self-control, to curb her growing resentment, but now it flamed passionately into words. "I hate the sight of you. Why don't you go—all of you—and leave me in peace?"
It was a cry of bruised pride and wounded love. Elliot touched the Indian woman on the shoulder. Meteetse turned stolidly and walked out of the room, still leading Colmac by the hand. The young man followed.
Macdonald closed the door behind them, then strode frowning up and down the room. The fear was growing on him that for all his great driving power he could not shake this slim girl from the view to which she clung. If the situation had not been so serious, it would have struck him as ridiculous. His relation with Meteetse had been natural enough. He believed that he had acted very honorably to her. Many a man would have left her in the lurch to take care of the youngster by herself. But he had acknowledged his obligation. He was paying his debt scrupulously, and because of it the story had risen to confront him. He felt that it was an unjust blow of fate. Punishment was falling upon him, not for what he had done, but because he had scorned to make a secret of it.
He knew that he must justify himself before Sheba or lose her. As she stood in the dusk so tall and rigid, he knew her heart was steel to him. Her finely chiseled face had the look of race. Never had the spell of her been more upon him. He crushed back a keen-edged desire to take her supple young body into his arms and kiss her till the scarlet ran into her cheeks like splashes of wine.
"You haven't the proper slant on this, Sheba. Alaska is the last frontier. It's the dropping-off place. You're north of fifty-three."
"Am I north of the Ten Commandments?" she demanded with the inexorable judgment of youth. "Did you leave the moral code at home when you came in over the ice?"
He smiled a little. "Morality is the average conduct of the average man at a given time and place. It is based on custom and expediency. The rules made for Drogheda won't fit Dawson or Nome. The laws made to protect young women in Ireland would be absurd if applied to half-breed squaws in Alaska. Meteetse does not hold herself disgraced but honored. She counts her boy far superior to the other youngsters of the village, and he is so considered by the tribe. I am told she lords it over her sisters."
A faint flush of anger had crept into her cheeks. "Your view of morality puts us on a level with the animals. I will not discuss the subject, if you please."
"We must discuss it. I must get you to see that Meteetse and what she stood for in my life have nothing to do with us. They belong to my past. She doesn't exist for either of us—isn't in any way a part of my present or future."
"She exists for me," answered Sheba listlessly. She felt suddenly old and weary. "But I can't talk about it. Please go. I want to be alone."
Again Macdonald paced restlessly down the room and back. He moved with a long, easy, tireless stride. The man was one among ten thousand, dominant, virile, every ounce of him strong as tested steel. But he felt as if all his energy were caged.
"Why don't you go?" the girl pleaded. "It's no use to stay."
He stopped in front of her. "I'm going to marry you, Sheba. Don't think I'll let that meddler interfere with our happiness. You're mine."
"No. Never!" she cried. "I'll take the boat and go home first."
"You've promised to marry me. You're going to keep your word and be glad of it all your life."
She shook her head. "No."
"Yes." Macdonald had always shown remarkable restraint with her. He had kissed her seldom, and always with a kind of awe at her young purity. Now he caught her by the shoulders. His eyes, deep in their sockets, mirrored the passionate desire of his heart.
The color flamed into her face. She looked hot to the touch, an active volcano ready to erupt. There was an odd feeling in her mind that this big man was a stranger to her.
"Take your hands from me," she ordered.
"Do you think I'm going to give you up now—now, after I've won you—because of a damfool scruple in your pretty head? You don't know me. It's too late. I love you—and I'm going to protect both of us from your prudishness."
His arms closed on her and he crushed her to him, looking down hungrily into the dark, little face.
"Let me go," she cried fiercely, struggling to free herself.
For answer he kissed the red lips, the flaming cheeks, the angry eyes. Then, coming to his senses, he pushed her from him, turned, and strode heavily from the room.
GORDON BUYS A REVOLVER
Selfridge was not eager to meet his chief, but he knew he must report at once. He stopped at his house only long enough to get into fresh clothes and from there walked down to the office. Over the Paget telephone he had got into touch with Macdonald who told him to wait at headquarters until he came.
It had been the intention of Macdonald to go direct from Sheba to his office, but the explosion brought about by Meteetse had sent him out into the hills for a long tramp. He was in a stress of furious emotion, and until he had worked off the edge of it by hard mushing, the cramped civilization of the town stifled him.
Hours later he strode into the office of the company. He was dust-stained and splashed with mud. Fifteen miles of stiff heel-and-toe walking had been flung behind him.
Wally lay asleep in a swivel chair, his fat body sagging and his head fallen sideways in such a way as to emphasize the plump folds of his double chin. His eyes opened. They took in his chief slowly. Then, in a small panic, he jumped to his feet.
"Must 'a' been taking thirty winks," he explained. "Been up nights a good deal."
"What doing?" demanded the Scotchman harshly.
In a hurried attempt to divert the anger of Macdonald, his assistant made a mistake. "Say, Mac! Who do you think came up on the boat with me? I wondered if you knew. Meteetse and her kid—"
He stopped. The big man was glaring savagely at him. But Macdonald said nothing. He waited, and under the compulsion of his forceful silence Wally stumbled on helplessly.
"—They got off here. 'Course I didn't know whether you'd sent for her or not, so I stopped and kinder gave her the glad hand just to size things up."
"She had the address of Miss O'Neill, that Irish girl staying at the Pagets, the one that came in—"
"Go on," snapped his chief.
"So I directed her how she could get there and—"
Wally found himself lifted from the chair and hammered down into it again. His soft flesh quaked like a jelly. As he stared pop-eyed at the furious face above him, the fat chin of the little man drooped.
"My God, Mac, don't do that!" he whined.
Macdonald wheeled abruptly away, crossed the room in long strides, and came back. He had a grip on himself again.
"What's the use?" he said aloud. "You're nothing but a spineless putterer. Haven't you enough sense even to give me a chance to decide for myself? Why didn't you keep the woman with you till you could send for me, you daft donkey?"
"I swear I never thought of that."
"What have you got up there in your head instead of brains? I send you outside to look after things and you fall down on the job. I give you plain instructions what to do at Kamatlah and you let Elliot make a monkey of you. You see him on the boat with a woman coming to make trouble for me, and the best you can do is to help her on the way. Man, man, use your gumption."
"If I had known—"
"D'ye think you've got sense enough to take a plain, straight message as far as the hotel? Because if you have, I've got one to send."
Wally caressed tenderly his bruised flesh. He had a childlike desire to weep, but he was afraid Macdonald would kick him out of the office.
"'Course I'll do whatever you say, Mac," he answered humbly.
The Scotch-Canadian brushed the swivel chair and its occupant to one side, drew up another chair in front of the desk, and faced Selfridge squarely. The eyes that blazed at the little man were the grimmest he had ever looked into.
"Go to the hotel and see this man Elliot alone. Tell him he's gone too far—butted into my affairs once too often. There's not a man alive I'd stand it from. My orders are for him to get out on the next boat. If he's here after that, I'll kill him on sight."
The color ebbed out of the florid face of Wally. He moistened his lips to speak. "Good God, Mac, you can't do that. He'll go out and report—"
"To hell with his report. Let him say what he likes. Put this to him straight: that he and I can't stay in this town—and both of us live."
Wally had lapped up too many highballs in the past ten years to relish this kind of a mission. He had depressed his nerves with overmuch tobacco and spurred them with liquors, had dissipated his force in many small riotings. His nerve was gone. He had not the punch any more. Yet Mac was always expecting him to help out with his rough stuff, he reflected fretfully. This was the third time in a month that he had been flung headlong into trouble. Take this message now. There was no sense in it. Selfridge plucked up his courage to say so.
"That won't buy us anything but trouble, Mac. In the old days you could put over—"
The little man never guessed how close he came to being flung through the transom over the door, but his instinct warned him to stop. His objection died away in a mumble.
"O' course I'll do whatever you say," he added a second time.
"See you do," advised his chief, an ugly look in his eyes. "Tell him he gets till the next boat. If he's here after that, he'd better go heeled, for I'll shoot on sight wherever we meet."
Selfridge went on his errand with lagging feet. On the way he stopped at the Pay-Streak Saloon to fortify himself with a cocktail. He found Elliot sitting moodily alone on the porch of the hotel.
In Gordon's pocket there was a note to Macdonald explaining that he had nothing to do with the coming of Meteetse. He had expected to send it by the hotel porter that evening, but the curt order to leave town filled him with a chill anger. The dictator of affairs at Kusiak might think what he pleased for all the explanation he would get from him. As for taking the next boat, Elliot did not even give that consideration.
"Tell your master I don't take orders from him," he told Wally quietly. "I'll stay till my work here is done."
They had moved a few yards down the street. Now Gordon turned, lean-loined and active, and trod with crisp, confident step back to the hotel. He had said all that was necessary to say.
Two men standing on the porch nodded a good-evening to him. Gordon, about to pass, glanced at them again. They were Northrup and Trelawney, two of the miners who had had trouble with Macdonald on the boat.
On impulse he stopped. "Found work yet?" he asked.
"Found a job and lost it again," Northrup answered sullenly.
"Macdonald passed the word along that we weren't to get work. So our boss fired us. The whole district is closed to us. We been blacklisted," explained Trelawney.
"And we're busted," added his mate.
Elliot was always free-handed. Perhaps he felt just now unusually sympathetic towards these victims of the high-handed methods of Macdonald. From his pocket he took a small leather purse and gave a piece of gold to each of them.
"Just as a loan to carry you for a couple of days till you get something to do," he suggested.
Northrup demurred, but after a little pressure accepted the accommodation.
"I pay you soon back," he promised.
Trelawney laughed recklessly. He had been drinking.
"You bet. Me too."
His companion flashed a look of warning at him and explained that they were going down the river to look for work outside of the district.
Suddenly Trelawney broke loose and began to curse Macdonald with a bitterness that surprised the Government agent. What struck him most, though, was the obvious anxiety of Northrup to quiet his partner and to gloss over what he had said. Thinking of it later, Gordon wondered why the Dane, who had as much cause to hate Macdonald as the other, should be at such pains to smooth down the man and explain away his threats.
Elliot bought an automatic revolver next morning and a box of cartridges. He was not looking for trouble, but he intended to be prepared for it when trouble came looking for him. With a rifle he was a fair shot, but he lacked experience with the revolver. In the afternoon he walked out of town and practiced shooting at tin cans for a half an hour. On his way back he met Peter Paget.
The engineer came straight to the subject in his mind.
"Selfridge came to see me last night. He told me about the trouble between you and Macdonald, Gordon. You must leave town till he cools down. Macdonald is a bad man with a gat."
"You can drop down the river on business for a few weeks. After a while—"
His friend looked at him coolly. "I can, but I'm not going to. Where do you get this stuff about me being a quitter, Pete?"
Peter laid a hand on his shoulder. "Now, look here, Gordon. Don't be a kid and foolhardy. Duck. I'm your friend—"
"You're his, too, aren't you?"
"Yes, of course, but—"
"All right. Tell him to duck. There'll be no trouble of my making. But if he starts any I'll be there. Macdonald doesn't own the earth, you know. I've been sent up here by Uncle Sam on business, and you can bet your last dollar I'll stay on the job till I'm through."
"Of course you've got to finish your job. But it doesn't all have to be done right here. Just for a week or two—"
"Tell your friend something else while you're on the subject. If I drop him, I go scot free because he is interfering with me in my duty. I'll put Selfridge on the stand to prove it. But if he should kill me, his last chance for getting the Macdonald claims patented would be gone. The public would raise such a howl that the Administration would have to throw your friend and the Guttenchilds overboard to save itself. I know that—and Macdonald knows it. So he stands to lose either way."
Paget knew this was true. He knew, too, there was no use in arguing with this young athlete. That close-gripped jaw and salient chin did not belong to a slacker. Gordon would stick and see the thing out. But Peter could not drop the subject without one more appeal.
"He's not sore at you about the claims. You know that. It's because you brought the squaw up the river to see Sheba."
"I didn't bring her—hadn't a thing to do with that. I don't know who brought her, though I could give a good guess."
A gleam of hope showed in the eye of the engineer. "You didn't bring her? Diane said you threatened—"
"Maybe I did say I would. Anyhow, I thought better of it. But I'm glad some one had the sense to tell Miss O'Neill the truth."
"Who do you think brought her?"
"I'm not thinking on that subject out loud."
"But if we could show Mac—"
"That's up to you. I'll not lift a finger. Your king of Kusiak has to learn some time that everybody isn't going to sidestep him and pussyfoot when he's around. I didn't start this war and I'm not making any peace overtures."
"You're as obstinate as the devil," smiled Peter, but in his heart he admired the dourness of his friend.
The engineer went to Macdonald and gave a deleted version of his talk with Elliot. The Scotchman listened, a bitter, incredulous smile on his face.
"Says he didn't bring her, does he? Tell him from me that he lies. Your wife let out to me by accident that he threatened to bring her. Meteetse and he came up on the boat together. He was with her at your house when she told her story. He's trying to save his hide. No chance."
"Elliot isn't a liar. When he says he didn't bring the woman, that satisfies me. I know he didn't do it," insisted Paget stiffly.
"Different here. Who else had any interest in bringing her except him? Nobody. Use your brains, Peter. He takes the first boat down the river. He comes back on the next one. She comes back, too. They couldn't figure I'd be at your house when they showed up there to tell the story. That's where Mr. Elliot slipped up."
Peter was of different stuff from Selfridge. He had something to say. So he said it.
"Times have changed, Mac. You can't shoot down this young fellow without making all kinds of trouble. First thing we'd lose the claims. The Administration would drop you like a hot potato if you did a thing like that. Sheba would never speak to you again. Your friends would know in their hearts it was murder. You can't do it."
Macdonald's jaw clamped. "Then let him get out. That's my last word to him."
Colby Macdonald, in miner's boots and corduroy working suit, stood beside his horse with one arm thrown carelessly across its rump. He was about to start for Seven-Mile Creek Camp with twenty-seven hundred dollars in the saddlebags to pay the men there.
Diane was talking with him. "She's young and fine and spirited. Of course it was a great shock to her. She had been idealizing you. But I think she is beginning to understand things better. At any rate, she does not hate you any more. Give the girl time."
"You think she will—be reasonable?"
Mrs. Paget finished the pattern she was punching in the soft ground beside the board walk with the ferrule of her umbrella. Her eyes met his frankly.
"I don't know. But I'm sure of one thing. She'll not be reasonable, as you call it, unless you are reasonable."
"Yes. She likes him very much. Do you know that when the Indian woman came he urged Sheba not to listen to her story?"
"Sounds likely—after he had spent his good money bringing her here," sneered the mine-owner.
"He didn't. Gordon is a splendid fellow. He wouldn't lie," answered Diane hotly. "And one thing is sure—if you lay a finger on him for this, it will be fatal with Sheba. She will be through with you."
Macdonald had thought of this before. It had been coming to him from several different angles that he could not afford to gratify his desire to wipe this meddlesome young official from his path. He made a slow, sulky promise.
"All right. I'll let him alone. Peter can tell him."
Swinging to the saddle, he spurred his horse and cantered away. With a little smile Diane watched his flat, muscular back and the arrogant set of his strong shoulders. There was not his match in the territory, she thought, but sometimes a clever woman could manage him.
His mind was full of the problem that had come into his life. He rode abstractedly, so that he was at the lower ford of the creek almost before he knew it. A bilberry thicket straggled down to the opposite bank of the stream on both sides of the road.
The horse splashed through the ford and took the little rise beyond with a rush. Just before reaching the brow of the hill, the animal stumbled and fell. As its rider went headlong, he caught a glimpse of a cord drawn taut across the path.
Macdonald, shaken by the fall, began slowly to rise. From the shadows of the bilberry bushes two stooping figures rushed at him. He threw up an arm to ward off the club aimed at his head, but succeeded only in breaking the force of the blow. As he staggered back, stunned, a bullet glanced along his forehead and ridged a furrow through the thick hair. A second stroke of the club jarred him to the heels.
Though his mind was not clear, his body answered automatically the instinct that told him to close with his assailants. He lurched forward and gripped one, wrestling with him for the revolver. Vaguely he knew by the sharp, jagged shoots of pain that the second man was beating his head with a club. The warm blood dripped through his hair and blinded his eyes. Dazed and shaken, he yet managed to get the revolver from the man who had it. But it was his last effort. He was too far gone to use it. A blow on the forehead brought him unconscious to the ground bleeding from a dozen wounds.
On his way back from Seven-Mile Creek Camp Gordon Elliot rode down to the ford. In the dusk he was almost upon them before the robbers heard him. For a moment the two men stood gazing at him and he at the tragedy before him. One of the men moved toward his horse.
"Stop there!" ordered Gordon sharply, and he reached for his revolver.
The man—it was the miner Northrup—jumped for Elliot and the field agent fired. Another moment, and he was being dragged from the saddle. What happened next was never clear to him. He knew that both of the bandits closed in on him and that he was fighting desperately against odds. The revolver had been knocked from his hand and he fought with bare fists just as they did. Twice he emptied his lungs in a cry for help.
They quartered over the ground, for Gordon would not let either of them get behind him. They were larger than he, heavy, muscle-bound giants of great strength, but he was far more active on his feet. He jabbed and sidestepped and retreated. More than once their heavy blows crashed home on his face. His eyes dared not wander from them for an instant, but he was working toward a definite plan. As he moved, his feet were searching for the automatic he had dropped.
One of his feet, dragging over the ground, came into contact with the steel. With a swift side kick Gordon flung the weapon a dozen feet to the left. Presently, watching his chance, he made a dive for it.
Trelawney, followed by Northrup, turned and ran. One of them caught Macdonald's horse by the bridle. He swung to the saddle and the other man clambered on behind. There was a clatter of hoofs and they were gone.
Elliot stooped over the battered body that lay huddled at the edge of the water. The man was either dead or unconscious, he was not sure which. So badly had the face been beaten and hammered that it was not until he had washed the blood from the wounds that Gordon recognized Macdonald.
Opening the coat of the insensible man, Gordon put his hand against the heart. He could not be sure whether he felt it beating or whether the throbbing came from the pulses in his finger tips. As well as he could he bound up the wounds with handkerchiefs and stanched the bleeding. With ice-cold water from the stream he drenched the bruised face. A faint sigh quivered through the slack, inert body.
Gordon hoisted Macdonald across the saddle and led the horse through the ford. He walked beside the animal to town, and never had two miles seemed to him so far. With one hand he steadied the helpless body that lay like a sack of flour balanced in the trough of the saddle.
Kusiak at last lay below him, and when he descended the hill to the suburbs almost the first house was the one where the Pagets lived.
Elliot threw the body across his shoulder and walked up the walk to the porch. He kicked upon the door with his foot. Sheba answered the knock, and at sight of what he carried the color faded from her face.
"Macdonald has been hurt—badly," he explained quickly.
"This way," the girl cried, and led him to her own room, hurrying in advance to throw back the bedclothes.
"Get Diane—and a doctor," ordered Gordon after he had laid the unconscious man on the white sheet.
While he and Diane undressed the mine-owner Sheba got a doctor on the telephone. The wounded man opened his eyes after a long time, but there was in them the glaze of delirium. He recognized none of them. He did not know that he was in the house of Peter Paget, that Diane and Sheba and his rival were fighting with the help of the doctor to push back the death that was crowding close upon him. All night he raved, and his delirious talk went back to the wild scenes of his earlier life. Sometimes he swore savagely; again he made quiet deadly threats; but always his talk was crisp and clean and vigorous. Nothing foul or slimy came to the surface in those hours of unconscious babbling.
The doctor had shaken his head when he first saw the wounds. He would make no promises.
"He's a mighty sick man. The cuts are deep, and the hammering must have jarred his brain terribly. If it was anybody but Macdonald, I wouldn't give him a chance," he told Diane when he left in the morning to get breakfast. "But Macdonald has tremendous vitality. Of course if he lives it will be because Mr. Elliot brought him in so soon."
Gordon walked with the doctor as far as the hotel. A brown, thin, leathery man undraped himself from a chair in the lobby when Elliot opened the door. He was officially known as the chief of police of Kusiak. Incidentally he constituted the whole police force. Generally he was referred to as Gopher Jones on account of his habit of spasmodic prospecting.
"I got to put you under arrest, Mr. Elliot," he explained.
The loafers in the hotel drew closer.
"What for?" demanded Gordon, surprised.
"Doc thinks it will run to murder, I reckon."
The field agent was startled. "You mean—Macdonald?"
The brown man chewed his quid steadily. "You done guessed it."
"That's absurd, you know. What evidence have you got?"
"First off, you'd had trouble with him. It was common talk that when you and Mac met, guns were going to pop. You bought an automatic revolver at the Seattle & Kusiak Emporium two days ago. You was seen practising with it."
"He had threatened me."
"You want to be careful what you say, Mr. Elliot. It will be used against you." Gopher shot a squirt of tobacco unerringly at the open door of the stove. "You was seen talking with Trelawney and Northrup. Money passed from you to them."
"I gave them a loan of ten dollars each because they were broke. Is that criminal?" demanded Gordon angrily.
"That's your story. You'll git a chance to tell it to the jury, I shouldn't wonder. Mebbe they'll believe it. You never can tell."
"Believe it! Why, you muttonhead, I found him where he was bleeding to death and brought him in."
"That's what I heard say. Kinder queer, ain't it, you happened to be the man that found him?"
"Nothing queer about it. I was riding in from Seven-Mile Creek Camp." Gordon was exasperated, but not at all alarmed.
"So you was. While you was out at the camp, you asked one of the boys how big the pay-roll would be."
"Does that prove I was planning a hold-up? Isn't that the last thing I would have asked if I had intended robbery?"
"Don't ask me. I ain't no psychologist. All I know is you took an interest in the bank-roll on the way."
"I'm here for the Government investigating Macdonald. I was getting information—earning my pay. Can you understand that?"
Gopher chewed his cud impassively. "Sure I can, and I been earning mine. By the way, howcome you to be beat up so bad, Mr. Elliot?"
"I had a fight with the robbers."
"Sure it wasn't with the robbed. That split lip of yours looks to me plumb like Mac's John Hancock."
Elliot flushed angrily. "Of course if you intend to believe me guilty—"
"Now, there ain't no manner o' use in gettin' het up, young fellow. Mebbe you did it; mebbe you didn't. Anyhow, you'll gimme that gat you been toting these last few days."
Gordon's hand moved toward his hip. Then he remembered.
"I haven't it. I left it—"
"You left it at the ford—with one shell empty. That's where you left it," interrupted the officer.
"Yes. I fired at Northrup as he rushed me."
"Um-hu," assented Jones, impudent unbelief in his eye. "At Northrup or at Macdonald."
"What do you think I did with the money, then? Did I eat it?"
"Not so you could notice it. Since you put it to me flat-foot, you gave it to your pardners. You didn't want it. They did. They have got the horse too—and they're hitting the high spots to make their get-away."
Elliot was locked up in the flimsy jail without breakfast. He was furious, but as he paced up and down the narrow beat beside the bed his anger gave way to anxiety. Surely the Pagets could not believe he had done such a thing. And Sheba—would she accept as true this weight of circumstantial evidence that was piling up against him?
It could all be explained so easily. And yet—the facts fitted like links of a chain to condemn him. He went over them one by one. The babbling tongue of Selfridge that had made common gossip of the impending tragedy in which he and Macdonald were the principals—his purchase of the automatic—his public meeting with two known enemies of the Scotchman, during which he had been seen to give them money—his target practice with the new revolver—the unhappy chance that had taken him out to Seven-Mile Creek Camp the very day of the robbery—his casual questions of the miners—even the finding of the body by him. All of these dovetailed with the hypothesis that his partners in crime were to escape and bear the blame, while he was to bring the body back to town and assume innocence.
Paget was admitted to his cell later in the morning by Gopher Jones. He shook hands with the prisoner. Jones retired.
"Tough luck, Gordon," the engineer said.
"What does Sheba think?" asked the young man quickly.
"We haven't told her you have been arrested. I heard it only a little while ago."
"Yes, she knows."
"Well?" demanded Gordon brusquely.
Peter looked at him in questioning surprise. "Well, what?" He caught the meaning of his friend. "Try not to be an ass, Gordon. Of course she knows the charge is ridiculous."
The chip dropped from the young man's shoulder. "Good old Diane. I might have known," he said with a new cheerfulness.
"I think you might have," agreed Peter dryly. "By the way, have you had any breakfast?"
"No. I'm hungry, come to think of it."
"I'll have something sent in from the hotel."
"He's alive—and while there's life there is hope."
"Any news of the murderers?" asked Gordon.
"Posses are combing the hills for them. They stole a packhorse from a truck gardener up the valley. It seems they bought an outfit for a month yesterday—said they were going prospecting."
They talked for a few minutes longer, mainly on the question of a lawyer and the chances of getting out on bond. Peter left the prisoner in very much better spirits than he had found him.
"GOD SAVE YOU KINDLY"
A nurse from the hospital had relieved Diane and Sheba at daybreak. They slept until the middle of the afternoon, then under orders from the doctor walked out to take the air. They were to divide the night watch between them and he said that he wanted them fit for service. The fever of the patient was subsiding. He slept a good deal, and in the intervals between had been once or twice quite rational.
The thoughts of the cousins drew their steps toward the jail. Sheba looked at Diane.
"Will they let us see him, do you think?"
"Perhaps. We can try."
Gopher Jones was not proof against the brisk confidence with which Mrs. Paget demanded admittance. He stroked his unshaven chin while he chewed his quid, then reluctantly got his keys.
The prisoner was sitting on the bed. His heart jumped with gladness when he looked up.
Diane shook hands cheerfully. "How is the criminal?"
"Better for hearing your kind voice," he answered.
His eyes strayed to the ebon-haired girl in the background. They met a troubled smile, grave and sweet.
"Awfully good of you to come to see me," he told Sheba gratefully. "How is Macdonald?"
"Better, we hope. He knew Diane this afternoon."
Mrs. Paget did most of the talking, but Gordon contributed his share. Sheba did not say much, but it seemed to the young man that there was a new tenderness in her manner, the expression of a gentle kindness that went out to him because he needed it. The walk had whipped the color into her cheeks and she bloomed in that squalid cell like a desert rose. There was in the fluent grace of the slender, young body a naive, virginal sweetness that took him by the throat. He knew that she believed in him and the trouble rolled from his heart like a cold, heavy wave.
"We haven't talked to Mr. Macdonald yet about the attack on him," Diane explained. "But he must have recognized the men. There are many footprints at the ford, showing how they moved over the ground as they fought. So he could not have been unconscious from the first blow."
"Unless they were masked he must have known them. It was light enough," agreed Elliot.
"Peter is still trying to get the officers to accept bail, but I don't think he will succeed. There is a good deal of feeling in town against you."
"Because I am supposed to be an enemy to an open Alaska, I judge."
"Mainly that. Wally Selfridge has been talking a good deal. He takes it for granted that you are guilty. We'll have to wait in patience till Mr. Macdonald speaks and clears you. The doctor won't let us mention the subject to him until he comes to it of his own free will."
Gopher stuck his head in at the door. "You'll have to go, ladies. Time's up."
When Sheba bade the prisoner good-bye it was with a phrase of the old Irish vernacular. "God save you kindly."
He knew the peasant's answer to the wish and gave it. "And you too."
The girl left the prison with a mist in her eyes. Her cousin looked at her with a queer, ironic little smile of affection. To be in trouble was a sure passport to the sympathy of Sheba. Now both her lovers were in a sad way. Diane wondered which of them would gain most from this new twist of fate.
Sheba turned to Mrs. Paget with an impulsive little burst of feminine ferocity. "Why do they put him in prison when they must know he didn't do it—that he couldn't do such a thing?"
"They don't all know as well as you do how noble he is, my dear," answered Diane dryly.
"But it's just absurd to think that he would plan the murder of a man he has broken bread with for a few hundred dollars."
Diane flashed another odd little glance in the direction of her cousin. Probably Sheba was the one woman in Kusiak who did not know that Macdonald had served an ultimatum on Elliot to get out or fight and that their rivalry over her favor was at the bottom of the difficulty between them.
"It will work out all right," promised the older cousin.
Returning from their walk, they met Wally Selfridge coming out of the Paget house.
"Did you see Mr. Macdonald?" asked Diane.
"Yes. He's quite rational now." There was a jaunty little strut of triumph in Wally's cock-sure manner.
Mrs. Paget knew he had made himself very busy securing evidence against Gordon. He was probably trying to curry favor with his chief. The little man always had been jealous of Peter. Perhaps he was attempting to rap him over the shoulder of Elliot because the Government official was a friend of Paget. Just now his insolent voice suggested a special cause for exultation.
The reason Wally was so pleased with himself was that he had dropped a hint into the ear of the wounded man not to clear Elliot of complicity in the attack upon him. The news that the special investigator had been arrested for robbery and attempted murder, flashed all over the United States, would go far to neutralize any report he might make against the validity of the Macdonald claims. If to this could be added later reports of an indictment, a trial, and possibly a conviction, it would not matter two straws what Elliot said in his official statement to the Land Office.
Since the attack upon his chief, Selfridge had moved on the presumption that Elliot had been in a conspiracy to get rid of him. He accepted the guilt of the field agent because this theory jumped with the interest of Wally and his friends. As a politician he intended to play this new development for all it was worth.
He had been shocked at the sight of Macdonald. The terrible beating and the loss of blood had sapped all the splendid, vital strength of the Scotchman. His battered head was swathed in bandages, but the white face was bruised and disfigured. The wounded man was weak as a kitten; only the steady eyes told that he was still strong and unconquered.
"I want to talk business for a minute, Miss Sedgwick. Will you please step out?" said Macdonald to his nurse.
She hesitated. "The doctor says—"
"Do as I say, please."
The nurse left them alone. Wally told the story of the evidence against Elliot in four sentences. His chief caught the point at once.
After Selfridge had gone, the wounded man lay silent thinking out his programme. Not for a moment did he doubt that he was going to live, and his brain was already busy planning for the future. By some freak of luck the cards had been stacked by destiny in his favor. He knew now that in the violence of his anger against Elliot he had made a mistake. To have killed his rival would have been fatal to the Kamatlah coal claims, would have alienated his best friends, and would have prejudiced hopelessly his chances with Sheba. Fate had been kind to him. He had been in the wrong and it had put him in the right. By the same cut of the cards young Elliot had been thrust down from an impregnable position to one in which he was a discredited suspect. With all this evidence to show that he had conspired against Macdonald, his report to the Department would be labor lost.
Diane came into the sick-room stripping her gloves after the walk. Macdonald smiled feebly at her and fired the first shot of his campaign to defeat the enemy.
"Has Elliot been captured yet?" he asked weakly.
The keen eyes of his hostess fastened upon him. "Captured! What do you mean? It was Gordon Elliot that brought you in and saved your life."
"Brought me from where?"
"From where he found you unconscious—at the ford."
"That's his story, is it?"
Macdonald shut his eyes wearily, but his incredulous voice had suggested a world of innuendo.
The young woman stood with her gloves crushed tight in both hands. It was her nature to be always a partisan. Without any reserve she was for Gordon in this new fight upon him. What had Wally Selfridge been saying to Macdonald? She longed mightily to ask the sick man some questions, but the orders of the doctor were explicit. Did the mine-owner mean to suggest that he had identified Elliot as one of his assailants? The thing was preposterous.
And yet—that was plainly what he had meant to imply. If he told such a story, things would go hard with Gordon. In court it would clinch the case against him by supplying the one missing link in the chain of circumstantial evidence.
Diane, in deep thought, frowned down upon the wounded man, who seemed already to have fallen into a light sleep. She told herself that this was some of Wally Selfridge's deviltry. Anyhow, she would talk it over with Peter.
GORDON SPENDS A BUSY EVENING
Paget smoked placidly, but the heart within him was troubled. It looked as if Selfridge had made up his mind to frame Gordon for a prison sentence. The worst of it was that he need not invent any evidence or take any chances. If Macdonald came through on the stand with an identification of Elliot as one of his assailants, the young man would go down the river to serve time. There was enough corroborative testimony to convict St. Peter himself.
It all rested with Macdonald—and the big Scotch-Canadian was a very uncertain quantity. His whole interests were at one in favor of getting Elliot out of the way. On the other hand—how far would he go to save the Kamatlah claims and to remove this good-looking rival from his path? Peter could not think he would stoop to perjury against an innocent man.
"I'm just telling you what he said," Diane explained. "And it worried me. His smile was cynical. I couldn't help thinking that if he wants to get even with Gordon—"
Mrs. Paget stopped. The maid had just brought into the room a visitor. Diane moved forward and shook hands with him. "How do you do, Mr. Strong? Take this big chair."
Hanford Strong accepted the chair and a cigar. Though a well-to-do mine-owner, he wore as always the rough clothes of a prospector. He came promptly to the object of his call.
"I don't know whether this is where I should have come or not. Are you folks for young Elliot or are you for Selfridge?" he demanded.
"If you put it that way, we're for Elliot," smiled Peter.
"All right. Let me put it another way. You work for Mac. Are you on his side or on Elliot's in this matter of the coal claims?"
Diane looked at Peter. He took his time to answer.
"We hope the coal claimants will win, but we've got sense enough to see that Gordon is in here to report the facts. That's what he is paid for. He'll tell the truth as he sees it. If his superior officers decide on those facts against Macdonald, I don't see that Elliot is to blame."
"That's how it looks to me," agreed Strong. "I'm for a wide-open Alaska, but that don't make it right to put this young fellow through for a crime he didn't do. Lots of folks think he did it. That's all right. I know he didn't. Fact is, I like him. He's square. So I've come to tell you something."
He smoked for a minute silently before he continued.
"I've got no evidence in his favor, but I bumped into something a little while ago that didn't look good to me. You know I room next him at the hotel. I heard a noise in his room, and I thought that was funny, seeing as he was locked up in jail. So I kinder listened and heard whispers and the sound of some one moving about. There's a door between his room and mine that is kept locked. I looked through the keyhole, and in Elliot's room there was Wally Selfridge and another man. They were looking through papers at the desk. Wally put a stack of them in his pocket and they went out locking the door behind them."
"They had no business doing that," burst out Diane. "Wally Selfridge isn't an officer of the law."
Strong nodded dryly to her. "Just what I thought. So I followed them. They went to Macdonald's offices. After awhile Wally came out and left the other man there. Then presently the lights went out. The man is camped there for the night. Will you tell me why?"
"Why?" repeated Diane with her sharp eyes on the miner.
"Because Wally has some papers there he don't want to get away from him."
"Some of Gordon's papers, of course."
"You've said it."
"All his notes and evidence in the case of the coal claims probably," contributed Peter.
"Maybe. Wally has stole them, but he hasn't nerve enough to burn them till he gets orders from Mac. So he's holding them safe at the office," guessed Strong.
"It's an outrage," Diane decided promptly.
"Surest thing you know. Wally has fixed it to frame him for prison and to play safe about his evidence on the coal claims."
"What are you going to do about it?" Diane asked her husband sharply.
Peter rose. "First I'm going to see Gordon and hear what he has to say. Come on, Strong. We may be gone quite a while, Diane. Don't wait up for me if you get through your stint of nursing."
Roused from sleep, Gopher Jones grumbled a good deal about letting the men see his prisoner. "You got all day, ain't you, without traipsing around here nights. Don't you figure I'm entitled to any rest?"
But he let them into the ramshackle building that served as a jail, and after three dollars had jingled in the palm of his hand he stepped outside and left the men alone with his prisoner. The three put their heads together and whispered.
"I'll meet you outside the house of Selfridge in half an hour, Strong," was the last thing that Gordon said before Jones came back to order out the visitors.
As soon as the place was dark again, Gordon set to work on the flimsy framework of his cell window. He knew already it was so decrepit that he could escape any time he desired, but until now there had been no reason why he should. Within a quarter of an hour he lifted the iron-grilled sash bodily from the frame and crawled through the window.
He found Paget and Strong waiting for him in the shadows of a pine outside the yard of Selfridge.
"To begin with, you walk straight home and go to bed, Peter," the young man announced. "You're not in this. You're not invited to our party. I don't have to tell you why, do I?"
The engineer understood the reason. He was an employee of Macdonald, a man thoroughly trusted by him. Even though Gordon intended only to right a wrong, it was better that Paget should not be a party to it. Reluctantly Peter went home.
Gordon turned to Strong. "I owe you a lot already. There's no need for you to run a risk of getting into trouble for me. If things break right, I can do what I have to do without help."
"And if they don't?" Strong waved an impatient hand. "Cut it out, Elliot. I've taken a fancy to go through with this. I never did like Selfridge anyhow, and I ain't got a wife and I don't work for Mac. Why the hell shouldn't I have some fun?"
Gordon shrugged his shoulders. "All right. Might as well play ball and get things moving, then."
The little miner knocked at the door. Wally himself opened. Elliot, from the shelter of the pine, saw the two men in talk. Selfridge shut the door and came to the edge of the porch. He gave a gasp and his hands went trembling into the air. The six-gun of the miner had been pressed hard against his fat paunch. Under curt orders he moved down the steps and out of the yard to the tree.
At sight of Gordon the eyes of Wally stood out in amazement. Little sweat beads burst out on his forehead, for he remembered how busy he had been collecting evidence against this man.
"W-w-what do you want?" he asked.
"Got your keys with you?"
"Come with us."
Wally breathed more freely. For a moment he had thought this man had come to take summary vengeance on him.
They led him by alleys and back streets to the office of the Macdonald Yukon Trading Company. Under orders he knocked on the door and called out who he was. Gordon crouched close to the log wall, Strong behind him.
"Let me in, Olson," ordered Selfridge again.
The door opened, and a man stood on the threshold. Elliot was on top of him like a panther. The man went down as though his knees were oiled hinges. Before he could gather his slow wits, the barrel of a revolver was shoved against his teeth.
"Take it easy, Olson," advised Gordon. "Get up—slowly. Now, step back into the office. Keep your hands up."
Strong closed and locked the door behind them.
"I want my papers, Selfridge. Dig up your keys and get them for me," Elliot commanded.
Wally did not need any keys. He knew the combination of the safe and opened it. From an inner drawer he drew a bunch of papers. Gordon looked them over carefully. Strong sat on a table and toyed with a revolver which he jammed playfully into the stomach of his fat prisoner.
"All here," announced the field agent.
The safe-robbers locked their prisoners in the office and disappeared into the night. They stopped at the house of the collector of customs, a genial young fellow with whom Elliot had played tennis a good deal, and left the papers in his hands for safe-keeping. After which they returned to the hotel and reached the second floor by way of the back stairs used by the servants.
Here they parted, each going to his own room. Gordon slept like a schoolboy and woke only when the sun poured through the window upon his bed in a broad ribbon of warm gold.
He got up, bathed, dressed, and went down into the hotel dining-room. The waiters looked at him in amazement. Presently the cook peered in at him from the kitchen and the clerk made an excuse to drop into the room. Gordon ate as if nothing were the matter, apparently unaware of the excitement he was causing. He paid not the least attention to the nudging and the whispering. After he had finished breakfast, he lit a cigar, leaned back in his chair, and smoked placidly.
Presently an eruption of men poured into the room. At the head of them was Gopher Jones. Near the rear Wally Selfridge lingered modestly. He was not looking for hazardous adventure.
"Whad you doing here?" demanded Gopher, bristling up to Elliot.
The young man watched a smoke wreath float ceilingward before he turned his mild gaze on the chief of police.
"Don't you know we just got in from hunting you—two posses of us been out all night?" Gopher glared savagely at the smoker.
Gordon looked distressed. "That's too bad. There's a telephone in my room, too. Why didn't you call up? I've been there all night."
"The deuce you have," exploded Jones. "And us combing the hills for you. Young man, you're mighty smart. But I want to tell you that you'll pay for this."
"Did you want me for anything in particular—or just to get up a poker game?" asked Elliot suavely.
The leader of the posse gave himself to a job of scientific profanity. He was spurred on to outdo himself because he had heard a titter or two behind him. When he had finished, he formed a procession. He, with Elliot hand-cuffed beside him, was at the head of it. It marched to the jail.
SHEBA DOES NOT THINK SO
The fingers of Sheba were busy with the embroidery upon which she worked, but her thoughts were full of the man who lay asleep on the lounge. His strong body lay at ease, relaxed.
Already health was flowing back into his veins. Beneath the tan of the lean, muscular cheeks a warmer color was beginning to creep. Soon he would be about again, vigorous and forceful, striding over obstacles to the goal he had set himself.
Just now she was the chief goal of his desire. Sheba did not deceive herself into thinking that he had for a moment accepted her dismissal of him.
He still meant to marry her, and he had told her so in characteristic way the day after their break.
Sheba had sent him a check for the amount he had paid her and had refused to see him or anybody else.
Shamed and humiliated, she had kept to her room. The check had come back to her by mail.
Across the face of it he had written in his strong handwriting:—
I don't welsh on my bets. You can't give to me what is not mine.
Do not think for an instant that I shall not marry you.
Watching him now, she wondered what manner of man he was. There had been a day or two when she had thought she understood him. Then she had learned, from the story of Meteetse, how far his world of thought was from hers. That which to her had put a gulf between them was to him only an incident.
She moved to adjust a window blind and when she returned found that his steady eyes were fixed upon her.
"You're getting better fast," she said.
The girl had a favor to ask of him and lest her courage fail she plunged into it.
"Mr. Macdonald, if you say the word Mr. Elliot will be released on bail. I am thinking you will be so good as to say it."
His narrowed eyes held a cold glitter. "Why?"
"You must know he is innocent. You must—"
"I know only what the evidence shows," he cut in, warily on his guard. "He may or may not have been one of my attackers. From the first blow I was dazed. But everything points to it that he hired—"
"Oh, no!" interrupted the Irish girl, her dark eyes shining softly. "The way of it is that he saved your life, that he fought for you, and that he is in prison because of it."
"If that is true, why doesn't he bring some proof of it?"
"Proof!" she cried scornfully. "Between friends—"
"He's no friend of mine. The man is a meddler. I despise him."
The scarlet flooded her cheeks. "And I am liking him very, very much," she flung back stanchly.
Macdonald looked up at the vivid, flushed face and found it wholly charming. He liked her none the less because her fine eyes were hot and defiant in behalf of his rival.
"Very well," he smiled. "I'll get him out if you'll do me a good turn too."
"Thank you. It's a bargain."
"Then sing to me."
She moved to the piano. "What shall I sing?"
The long lashes veiled her soft eyes while she considered. In a way he had tricked her into singing for him a love-song she did not want to sing. But she made no protest. Swiftly she turned and slid along the bench. Her fingers touched the keys and she began.
He watched the beauty and warmth of her dainty youth with eyes that mirrored the hunger of his heart. How buoyantly she carried her dusky little head! With what a gallant spirit she did all things! He was usually a frank pagan, but when he was with her it seemed to him that God spoke through her personality all sorts of brave, fine promises.
Sheba paid her pledge in full. After the first two stanzas were finished she sang the last ones as well:—
"An' what about the wather when I'd have ould Paddy's boat, Is it me that would be feared to grip the oars an' go afloat? Oh, I could find him by the light of sun or moon or star: But there's caulder things than salt waves between us, so they are. Och anee!
"Sure well I know he'll never have the heart to come to me, An' love is wild as any wave that wanders on the sea, 'Tis the same if he is near me, 'tis the same if he is far: His thoughts are hard an' ever hard between us, so they are. Och anee!"
Her hands dropped from the keys and she turned slowly on the end of the seat. The dark lashes fell to her hot cheeks. He did not speak, but she felt the steady insistence of his gaze. In self-defense she looked at him.
The pallor of his face lent accent to the fire that smouldered in his eyes.
"I'm going to marry you, Sheba. Make up your mind to that, girl," he said harshly.
There was infinite pity in the look she gave him. "'There's caulder things than salt waves between us, so they are,'" she quoted.
"Not if I love you and you love me. By God, I trample down everything that comes between us."
He swung to a sitting position on the lounge. Through the steel-gray eyes in the brooding face his masterful spirit wrestled with hers. A lean-loined Samson, with broad, powerful shoulders and deep chest, he dominated his world ruthlessly. But this slim Irish girl with the young, lissom body held her own.
"Must we go through that again?" she asked gently.
"Again and again until you see reason."
She knew the tremendous driving power of the man and she was afraid in her heart that he would sweep her from the moorings to which she clung.
"There is something else I haven't told you." The embarrassed lashes lifted bravely from the flushed cheeks to meet steadily his look. "I don't think—that I—care for you. 'Tis I that am shamed at my—fickleness. But I don't—not with the full of my heart."
His bold, possessive eyes yielded no fraction of all they claimed. "Time enough for that, Sheba. Truth is that you're afraid to let yourself love me. You're worried because you can't measure me by the little two-by-four foot-rule you brought from Ireland with you."
Sheba nodded her dusky little head in naive candor. "I think there will be some truth in that, Mr. Macdonald. You're lawless, you know."
"I'm a law to myself, if that's what you mean. It is my business to help hammer out an empire in this Northland. If I let my work be cluttered up by all the little rules made by little men for other little ones, my plans would come to a standstill. I am a practical man, but I keep sight of the vision. No need for me to brag. What I have done speaks for me as a guidepost to what I mean to do."
"I know," the girl admitted with the impetuous generosity of her race. "I hear it from everybody. You have built towns and railroads and developed mines and carried the twentieth century into new outposts. You have given work to thousands. But you go so fast I can't keep step with you. I am one of the little folks for whom laws were made."
"Then I'll make a new code for you," he said, smiling. "Just do as I say and everything will come out right."
Faintly her smile met his. "My grandmother might have agreed to that. But we live in a new world for women. They have to make their own decisions. I suppose that is a part of the penalty we pay for freedom."
Diane came into the room and Macdonald turned to her.
"I have just been telling Sheba that I am going to marry her—that there is no escape for her. She had better get used to the idea that I intend to make her happy."
The older cousin glanced at Sheba and laughed with a touch of embarrassment. "Whether she wants to be happy or not, O Cave Man?"
"I'm going to make her want to."
Sheba fled, but from the door she flung back her challenge. "I don't think so."
GORDON FINDS HIMSELF UNPOPULAR
Macdonald kept his word to Sheba. He used his influence to get Elliot released, and with a touch of cynicism quite characteristic went on the bond of his rival. An information was filed against the field agent of the Land Department for highway robbery and attempted murder, but Gordon went about his business just as if he were not under a cloud.
None the less, he walked the streets a marked man. Women and children looked at him curiously and whispered as he passed. The sullen, hostile eyes of miners measured him silently. He was aware that feeling had focused against him with surprising intensity of resentment, and he suspected that the whispers of Wally Selfridge were largely responsible for this.
For Wally saw to it that in the minds of the miners Elliot in his own person stood for the enemies of the open-Alaska policy. He scattered broadcast garbled extracts from the first preliminary report of the field agent, and in the coal camps he spread the impression that the whole mining activities of the Territory would be curtailed if Elliot had his way.
In the States the fight between the coal claimants and their foes was growing more bitter. The muckrakers were busy, and the sentiment outside had settled so definitely against granting the patents that the National Administration might at any time jettison Macdonald and his backers as a sop to public opinion.
It was not hard for Gordon to guess how unpopular he was, but he did not let this interfere with his activities. He moved to and fro among the mining camps with absolute disregard of the growing hatred against him.
Paget came to him at last with a warning.
"What's this I hear about you being almost killed up on Bonanza?" Peter wanted to know.
"Down in the None Such Mine, you mean? It did seem to be raining hammers as I went down the shaft," admitted his friend.
"Were the hammers dropped on purpose?"
Gordon looked at him with a grim smile. "Your guess is just as good as mine, Peter. What do you think?"
Peter answered seriously. "I think it isn't safe for you to take the chances you do, Gordon. I find a wrong impression about you prevalent among the men. They are blaming you for stirring up all this trouble on the outside, and they are worried for fear the mines may close and they will lose their jobs. I tell you that they are in a dangerous mood."
"Sorry, but I can't help that."
"You can stay around town and not go out alone nights, can't you?"
"I dare say I can, but I'm not going to."
"Some of these men are violent. They don't think straight about you—"
"Kindness of Mr. Selfridge," contributed Gordon.
"Perhaps. Anyhow, there's a lot of sullen hate brewing against you. Don't invite an explosion. That would be just kid foolhardiness."
"You think I'd better buy another automatic gat," said Elliot with a grin.
"I think you had better use a little sense, Gordon. I dare say I am exaggerating the danger. But when you go around with that jaunty, devil-may-care way of yours, the men think you are looking for trouble—and you're likely to get it."
"I know what I'm talking about. Nine out of ten of the men think you tried to murder Macdonald after you had robbed him and that your nerve weakened on the job. This seems to some of the most lawless to give them a moral right to put you out of the way. Anyhow, it is a kind of justification, according to their point of view. I'm not defending it, of course. I'm telling you so that you can appreciate your danger."
"You have done your duty, then, Peter."
"But you don't intend to take my advice?"
"I'll tell you what I told you last time when you warned me. I'm going through with the job I've been hired to do, just as you would stick it out in my place. I don't think I'm in much danger. Men in general are law-abiding. They growl, but they don't go as far as murder."
Peter gave him up. After all, the chances were that Gordon was right. Alaska was not a lawless country. And it might be that the best way to escape peril was to walk through it with a grin as if it did not exist.
The next issue of the Kusiak "Sun" contained a bitter editorial attack upon Elliot. The occasion for it was a press dispatch from Washington to the effect that the pressure of public opinion had become so strong that Winton, Commissioner of the General Land Office, might be forced to resign his place. This was a blow to the coal claimants, and the "Sun" charged in vitriolic language that the reports of Elliot were to blame. He was, the newspaper claimed, an enemy to all those who had come to Alaska to earn an honest living there. Under indictment for attempted murder and for highway robbery, this man was not satisfied with having tried to kill from ambush the best friend Alaska had ever known. In every report that he sent to Washington he was dealing underhanded blows at the prosperity of Alaska. He was a snake in the grass, and as such every decent man ought to hold him in scorn.
Elliot read this just as he was leaving for the Willow Creek Camp. He thrust the paper impatiently into his coat pocket and swung to the saddle. Why did they persecute him? He had told nothing but the truth, nothing not required of him by the simplest, elemental honesty. Yet he was treated as an outcast and a criminal. The injustice of it was beginning to rankle.
He was temperamentally an optimist, but depression rode with him to the gold camp and did not lift from his spirits till he started back next day for Kusiak. The news had been flashed by wire all over the United States that he was a crook. His friends and relatives could give no adequate answer to the fact that an indictment hung over his head. In Alaska he was already convicted by public opinion. Even the Pagets were lined up as to their interests with Macdonald. Sheba liked him and believed in him. Her loyal heart acquitted him of all blame. But it was to the wooing of his enemy that she had listened rather than to his. The big Scotchman had run against a barrier, but his rival expected him to trample it down. He would wear away the scruples of Sheba by the pressure of his masterful will.
In the late afternoon, while Gordon was still fifteen miles from Kusiak, his horse fell lame. He led it limping to the cabin of some miners.
There were three of them, and they had been drinking heavily from a jug of whiskey left earlier in the day by the stage-driver. Gordon was in two minds whether to accept their surly permission to stay for the night, but the lameness of his horse decided him.
Not caring to invite their hostility, he gave his name as Gordon instead of Elliot. He was to learn within the hour that this was mistake number two.
From a pocket of the coat he had thrown on a bed protruded the newspaper Gordon had brought from Kusiak. One of the men, a big red-headed fellow, pulled it out and began sulkily to read.
While he read the other two bickered and drank and snarled at each other. All three of the men were in that stage of drunkenness when a quarrel is likely to flare up at a moment's notice.
"Listen here," demanded the man with the newspaper. "Tell you what, boys, I'm going to wring the neck of that pussyfooting spy Elliot if I ever get a chanct."
He read aloud the editorial in the "Sun." After he had finished, the others joined him in a chorus of curses.
"I always did hate a spy—and this one's a murderer too. Why don't some one fill his hide with lead?" one of the men wanted to know.
Redhead was sitting at the table. He thumped a heavy fist down so hard that the tin cups jumped. "Gimme a crack at him and I'll show you, by God."
A shadow fell across the room. In the doorway stood a newcomer. Gordon had a sensation as if a lump of ice had been drawn down his spine. For the man who had just come in was Big Bill Macy, and he was looking at the field agent with eyes in which amazement, anger, and triumph blazed.
"I'm glad to death to meet up with you again, Mr. Elliot," he jeered. "Seems like old times on Wild-Goose."
"Whad you say his name is?" cut in the man with the newspaper.
"Hasn't he introduced himself, boys?" Macy answered with a cruel grin. "Now, ain't that modest of him? You lads are entertaining that well-known deteckative and spy Gordon Elliot, that renowned king of hold-ups—"
The red-headed man interrupted with a howl of rage. "If you're telling it straight, Bill Macy, I'll learn him to spy on me."
Elliot was sitting on one of the beds. He had not moved an inch since Macy had appeared, but the brain behind his live eyes was taking stock of the situation. Big Bill blocked the doorway. The table was in front of the window. Unless he could fight his way out, there was no escape for him. He was trapped.
Quietly Gordon looked from one to another. He read no hope in the eyes of any.
"I'm not spying on you. My horse is lame. You can see that for yourself. All I asked was a night's lodging."
"Under another name than your own, you damned sneak."
The field agent did not understand the fury of the man, because he did not know that these miners were working the claim under a defective title and that they had jumped to the conclusion that he had come to get evidence against them. But he knew that never in his life had he been in a tighter hole. In another minute they would attack him. Whether it would run to murder he could not tell. At the best he would be hammered helpless.
But no evidence of this knowledge appeared in his manner.
"I didn't give my last name because there is a prejudice against me in this country," he explained in an even voice.
He wondered as he spoke if he had better try to fling himself through the window sash. There might be a remote chance that he could make it.
The miner at the table killed this possibility by rising and standing squarely in the road.
"Look out! He's got a gat," warned Macy.
Gordon fervently wished he had. But he was unarmed. While his eyes quested for a weapon he played for time.
"You can't get away with this, you know. The United States Government is back of me. It's known I left the Willow Creek Camp. I'll be traced here."
Through Gordon's mind there flashed a word of advice once given him by a professional prize-fighter: "If you get in a rough house, don't wait for the other fellow to hit first."
They were crouching for the attack. In another moment they would be upon him. Almost with one motion he stooped, snatched up by the leg a heavy stool, and sprang to the bed upon which he had been sitting.
The four men closed with him in a rush. They came at him low, their heads protected by uplifted arms. His memory brought to him a picture of the whitewashed gridiron of a football field, and in it he saw a vision of safety.
The stool crashed down upon Big Bill Macy's head. Gordon hurdled the crumpling figure, plunged between hands outstretched to seize him, and over the table went through the window, taking the flimsy sash with him.
A NEW WAY OF LEAVING A HOUSE
The surge of disgust with which Sheba had broken her engagement to marry Macdonald ebbed away as the weeks passed. It was impossible for her to wait upon him in his illness and hold any repugnance toward this big, elemental man. The thing he had done might be wrong, but the very openness and frankness of his relation to Meteetse redeemed it from shame. He was neither a profligate nor a squawman.
This was Diane's point of view, and in time it became to a certain extent that of Sheba. One takes on the color of one's environment, and the girl from Drogheda knew in her heart that Meteetse and Colmac were no longer the real barriers that stood between her and the Alaskan. She had been disillusioned, saw him more clearly; and though she still recognized the quality of bigness that set him apart, her spirit did not now do such complete homage to it. More and more her thoughts contrasted him with another man.
Macdonald did not need to be told that he had lost ground, but with the dogged determination that had carried him to success he refused to accept the verdict. She was a woman, therefore to be won. The habit of victory was so strong in him that he could see no alternative.
He embarrassed her with his downright attentions, hemmed her in with courtesies she could not evade. If she appealed to her cousin, Diane only laughed.
"My dear, you might as well make up your mind to him. He is going to marry you, willy-nilly."
Sheba herself began to be afraid he would. There was something dominant and masterful about the man that swept opposition aside. He had a way of getting what he wanted.
The motor-car picnic to the Willow Creek Camp was a case in point. Sheba did not want to go, but she went. She would much rather have sat in the rear seat with Diane,—at least, she persuaded herself that she would,—yet she occupied the place beside Macdonald in front. The girl was a rebel. Still, in her heart, she was not wholly reluctant. He made a strong appeal to her imagination. She felt that it would have been impossible for any girl to be indifferent to the wooing of such a man.
The picnic was a success. Macdonald was an outdoor man rather than a parlor one. He took charge of the luncheon, lit the fire, and cooked the coffee without the least waste of effort. In his shirt-sleeves, the neck open at the throat, he looked the embodiment of masculine vigor. Diane could not help mentioning it to her cousin.
"Isn't he a splendid human animal?"
Sheba nodded. "He's wonderful."
"If I were a little Irish colleen and he had done me the honor to care for me, I'd have fallen fathoms deep in love with him."
The Irish colleen's eyes grew reflective. "Not if you had seen Peter first, Di. There's nothing reasonable about a girl, I do believe. She loves—or else she just doesn't."
Diane fired a question at her point-blank. "Have you met your Peter? Is that why you hang back?"
The color flamed into Sheba's face. "Of course not. You do say the most outrageous things, Di."
They had driven to Willow Creek over the river road. They returned by way of the hills. Macdonald drew up in front of a cabin to fill the radiator.
He stood listening beside the car, the water bucket in his hand. Something unusual was going on inside the house. There came the sound of a thud, of a groan, and then the crash of breaking glass. The whole window frame seemed to leap from the side of the house. The head and shoulders of a man projected through the broken glass.
The man swept himself free of the debris and started to run. Instantly he pulled up in his stride, as amazed to see those in the car as they were to see him.
"Gordon!" cried Diane.
Out of the house poured a rush of men. They too pulled up abruptly at sight of Macdonald and his guests.
A sardonic mirth gleamed in the eyes of the Scotchman. "Do you always come out of a house through the wall, Mr. Elliot?" he asked.
"Only when I'm in a hurry." Gordon pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at some glass-cuts on his face.
"Don't let us detain you," said the Alaskan satirically. "We'll excuse you, since you must go."
"I'm not in such a hurry now. In fact, if you're going to Kusiak, I think I'll ask you for a lift," returned the field agent coolly.
"And your friends-in-a-hurry—do they want a lift too?"
Big Bill Macy came swaying forward, both hands to his bleeding head. "He's a spy, curse him. And he tried to kill me."
"Did he?" commented Macdonald evenly. "What were you doing to him?"
"He can't sneak around our claim under a false name," growled one of the miners. "We'll beat his damn head off."
"I've had notions like that myself sometimes," assented the big Scotchman. "But I think we had all better leave Mr. Elliot to the law. He has Uncle Sam back of him in his spying, and none of us are big enough to buck the Government." Crisply Macdonald spoke to Gordon, turning upon him cold, hostile eyes. "Get in if you're going to."
Elliot met him eye to eye. "I've changed my mind. I'm going to walk."
"That's up to you."
Gordon shook hands with Diane and Sheba, went into the house for his coat, and walked to the stable. He brought out his horse and turned it loose, then took the road himself for Kusiak.
A couple of miles out the car passed him trudging townward. As they flashed down the road he waved a cheerful and nonchalant greeting.
Sheba had been full of gayety and life, but her mood was changed. All the way home she was strangely silent.
GID HOLT COMES TO KUSIAK
The days grew short. In sporting circles the talk was no longer of the midnight Fourth of July baseball game, but of preparation for the Alaska Sweepstakes, since the shadow of the cold Arctic winter had crept down to the Yukon and touched its waters to stillness. Men, gathered around warm stoves, spoke of the merits of huskies and Siberian wolf-hounds, of the heavy fall of snow in the hills, of the overhauling of outfits and the transportation of supplies to distant camps.
The last river boat before the freeze-up had long since gone. A month earlier the same steamer had taken down in a mail sack the preliminary report of Elliot to his department chief. One of the passengers on that trip had been Selfridge, sent out to counteract the influence of the evidence against the claimants submitted by the field agent. An information had been filed against Gordon for highway robbery and attempted murder. Wally was to see that the damning facts against him were brought to the attention of officials in high places where the charges would do most good. The details of the story were to be held in reserve for publicity in case the muckrake magazines should try to make capital of the report of Elliot.
Kusiak found much time for gossip during the long nights. It knew that Macdonald had gone on the bond of Elliot in spite of the scornful protest of the younger man. The two gave each other chilly nods of greeting when they met, but friends were careful not to invite them to the same social affairs. The case against the field agent was pending. Pursuit of the miners who had robbed the big mine-owner had long ago been dropped. Somewhere in the North the outlaws lay hidden, swallowed up by the great white waste of snow.
The general opinion was that Mac was playing politics about the trial of his rival. He would not let the case come to a jury until the time when a conviction would have most effect in the States, the gossips predicted. They did not know that he was waiting for the return of Wally Selfridge.
The whispers touched closely the personal affairs of Macdonald. The report of his engagement to Sheba O'Neill had been denied, but it was noticed that he was a constant guest at the home of the Pagets. Young Elliot called there too. Almost any day one or other of the two men could be seen with Sheba on the street. Those who wanted to take a sporting chance on the issue knew that odds were offered sub rosa at the Pay Streak saloon of three to one on Mac.
As for Sheba, she rebelled impotently at the situation. The mine-owner would not take "No" for an answer. He wooed her with a steady, dominant persistence that shook even her strong, young will. There was something resistless in the way he took her for granted. Gordon Elliot had not mentioned love to her, though there were times when her heart fluttered for fear he would. She did not want any more complications. She wanted to be let alone. So when an invitation came from her little friends the Husteds, signed by all three of the children, asking her to come and visit them at the camp back of Katma, the Irish girl jumped at the chance to escape for a time from the decision being forced upon her.
Sheba pledged her cousin to secrecy until after she had gone, so that Miss O'Neill was able to slip away on the stage unnoticed either by Macdonald or Elliot. The only other passenger was an elderly woman going up to the Katma camp to take a place as cook.
Later on the same day Wally Selfridge, coming in over the ice, reached Kusiak with important news for his chief. He brought with him an order from Winton, Commissioner of the General Land Office, suspending Elliot pending an investigation of the charges against him. The field agent was to forward by mail all documents in his possession and for the time, at least, drop the matter of the coal claims.
Oddly enough, it was to Genevieve Mallory that Macdonald went for consolation when he learned that Sheba had left town. He had always found it very pleasant to drop in for a chat with her, and she saw to it that he met the same friendly welcome now that a rival had annexed his scalp to her slender waist. For Mrs. Mallory did not concede defeat. If the Irish girl could be eliminated, she believed she would yet win.
His hostess laced her fingers behind her beautiful, tawny head, quite well aware that the attitude set off the perfect modeling of the soft, supple body. She looked up at him with a mocking little smile.
"Rumor says that she has run away, my lord. Is it true?"
"Yes. Slipped away on the stage this morning."
"That's a good sign. She was afraid to stay."
It was a part of the fiction between them that Mrs. Mallory was to give him the benefit of her advice in his wooing of her rival. She seemed to take it for granted that he would at last marry Sheba after wearing away the rigid Puritanism of her resentment.
Macdonald had never liked her so well as now. Her point of view was so sane, so reasonable. It asked for no impossible virtues in a man. There was something restful in her genial, derisive understanding of him. She had a silent divination of his moods and ministered indolently to them.
"Do you think so? Ought I to follow her?" he asked.
She showed a row of perfect teeth in a low ripple of amusement. The situation at least was piquant, even though it was at her expense.
"No. Give the girl time. Catch her impulse on the rebound. She'll be bored to death at Katma and she will come back docile."
Her scarlet lips, the long, unbroken lines of the sinuous, opulent body, the challenge of the smouldering eyes, the warmth of her laughter, all invited him to forget the charms of other women. The faint feminine perfume of her was wafted to his brain. He felt a besieging of the blood.
Stepping behind the chair in which she sat, he tilted back the head of lustrous bronze, and very deliberately kissed her on the lips.
For a moment she gave herself to his embrace, then pushed him back, rose, and walked across the room to a little table. With fingers that trembled slightly she lit a cigarette. Sheathed in her close-fitting gown, she made a strong carnal appeal to him, but there was between them, too, a close bond of the spirit. He made no apologies, no explanation.
Presently she turned and looked at him. Only the deeper color beneath her eyes betrayed any excitement.
"Unless I'm a bad prophet you'll get the answer you want when she comes back, Colby."
He thought her reply to his indiscretion superb. It admitted complicity, reproached, warned, and at the same time ignored. Never before had she called him by his given name. He took it as a token of forgiveness and renunciation.
Why was it not Genevieve Mallory that he wanted to marry? It would be the wise thing to do. She would ask nothing of him that he could not give, and she would bring to him many things that he wanted. But he was under the spell of Sheba's innocence, of the mystery of her youth, of the charm she had brought with her from the land of fairies and banshees. The reasonable course made just now not enough appeal to him. He craved the rapture of an impossible adventure into a world wonderful.
The mine-owner carried with him back to his office a sense of the futile irony of life. A score of men would have liked to marry Mrs. Mallory. She had all the sophisticated graces of life and much of the natural charm of an unusually attractive personality. He had only to speak the word to win her, and his fancy had flown in pursuit of a little Puritan with no knowledge of the world.
In front of the Seattle & Kusiak Emporium the Scotchman stopped. A little man who had his back to him was bargaining for a team of huskies. The man turned, and Macdonald recognized him.
"Hello, Gid. Aren't you off your usual beat a bit?" he asked.
The little miner looked him over impudently. "Well—well! If it ain't the Big Mogul himself—and wantin' to know if I've got permission to travel off the reservation."
Macdonald laughed tolerantly. He had that large poise which is not disturbed by the sand stings of life.
"I reckon you travel where you want to, Gid,—same as I do."
"Maybeso. I shouldn't wonder if you'd find out quite soon enough what I'm doing here. You never can tell," the old man retorted with a manner that concealed volumes.
Those who were present remembered the words and in the light of what took place later thought them significant.
"Anyhow, it is quite a social event for Kusiak," Macdonald suggested with a smile of irony.
Without more words Holt turned back to his bargaining. The big Scotchman went on his way, remembered that he wanted to see the cashier of the bank which he controlled, and promptly forgot that old Gid existed.
The old man concluded his purchase and drove up to the hotel behind one of the best dog teams in Alaska. He had paid one hundred dollars down and was to settle the balance next day.
Gideon asked a question of the porter.
"Second floor. That's his room up there," the man answered, pointing to a window.
"Oh, you, seven—eighteen—ninety-nine," the little miner shouted up.
Elliot appeared at the window. "Well, I'll be hanged! What are you doing here, Old-Timer?"
"Onct I knew a man lived to be a grandpa minding his own business," grinned the little man. "Come down and I'll tell you all about it, boy."
In half a minute Gordon was beside him. After the first greetings the young man nodded toward the dog team.
"How did you persuade Tim Ryan to lend you his huskies?"
"Why don't you take a paper and keep up with the news, son? These huskies don't belong to Tim."
"Meaning that Mr. Gideon Holt is the owner?"
"You've done guessed it," admitted the miner complacently.
He had a right to be proud of the team. It was a famous one even in the North. It had run second for two years in the Alaska Sweepstakes to Macdonald's great Siberian wolf-hounds. The leader Butch was the hero of a dozen races and a hundred savage fights.
"What in Halifax do you want with the team?" asked Elliot, surprised. "The whole outfit must have cost a small fortune."
"Some dust," admitted Gideon proudly. He winked mysteriously at Gordon. "I got a use for this team, if any one was to ask you."
"Haven't taken the Government mail contract, have you?"
"Not so you could notice it. I'll tell you what I want with this team, as the old sayin' is." Holt lowered his voice and narrowed slyly his little beadlike eyes. "I'm going to put a crimp in Colby Macdonald. That's what I aim to do with it."
The miner beckoned Elliot closer and whispered in his ear.
IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT
While Kusiak slept that night the wind shifted. It came roaring across the range and drove before it great scudding clouds heavily laden with sleety snow. The howling storm snuffed out the moonlight as if it had been a tallow dip and fought and screamed around the peaks, whirling down the gulches with the fury of a blizzard.
From dark till dawn the roar of the wind filled the night. Before morning heavy drifts had wiped out the roads and sheeted the town in virgin white unbroken by trails or furrows.
With the coming of daylight the tempest abated. Kusiak got into its working clothes and dug itself out from the heavy blanket of white that had tucked it in. By noon the business of the town was under way again. That which would have demoralized the activities of a Southern city made little difference to these Arctic Circle dwellers. Roads were cleared, paths shoveled, stores opened. Children in parkas and fur coats trooped to school and studied through the short afternoon by the aid of electric light.
Dusk fell early and with it came a scatter of more snow. Mrs. Selfridge gave a dinner-dance at the club that night and her guests came in furs of great variety and much value. The hostess outdid herself to make the affair the most elaborate of the season. Wally had brought the favors in from Seattle and also the wines. Nobody in Kusiak of any social importance was omitted from the list of invited except Gordon Elliot. Even the grumpy old cashier of Macdonald's bank—an old bachelor who lived by himself in rooms behind those in which the banking was done—was persuaded to break his custom and appear in a rusty old dress suit of the vintage of '95.
The grizzled cashier—his name was Robert Milton—left the clubhouse early for his rooms. It was snowing, but the wind had died down. Contrary to his custom, he had taken two or three glasses of wine. His brain was excited so that he knew he could not sleep. He decided to read "Don Quixote" by the stove for an hour or two. The heat and the reading together would make him drowsy.
Arrived at the bank, he let himself into his rooms and locked the door. He stooped to open the draft of the stove when a sound stopped him halfway. The cashier stood rigid, still crouched, waiting for a repetition of the noise. It came once more—the low, dull rasping of a file.
Shivers ran down the spine of Milton and up the back of his head to the roots of his hair. Somebody was in the bank—at two o'clock in the morning—with tools for burglary. He was a scholarly old fellow, brought up in New England and cast out to the uttermost frontier by the malign tragedy of poverty. Adventure offered no appeal to him. His soul quaked as he waited with slack, feeble muscles upon the discovery that only a locked door stood between him and violent ruffians.
But though his knees trembled beneath him and the sickness of fear was gripping his heart, Robert Milton had in him the dynamic spark that makes a man. He tiptoed to his desk and with shaking fingers gripped the revolver that lay in a drawer.
The cashier stood there for a moment, moistening his dry lips with his tongue and trying to swallow the lump that rose to his throat and threatened to stop his breathing. He braced himself for the plunge, then slowly trod across the room to the inner, locked door. The palsied fingers of his left hand could scarce turn the key.
It seemed to him that the night was alive with the noise he made in turning the lock and opening the door. The hinges grated and the floor squeaked beneath the fall of his foot as he stood at the threshold.
Two men were in front of the wire grating which protected the big safe that filled the alcove to the right. One held a file and the other a candle. Their blank, masked faces were turned toward Milton, and each of them covered him with a weapon.
"W-what are you doing here?" quavered the cashier.
"Drop that gun," came the low, sharp command from one of them.
Under the menace of their revolvers the heart of Milton pumped water instead of blood. The strength oozed out of him. His body swayed and he shut his eyes. A hand groped for the casement of the door to steady him.