"And Gordon—you admit he didn't do it?"
Again he nodded, sulkily. "No. He didn't do it."
Joy lilted in her voice. "So you've brought me here to tell me. Oh, I am glad, my friend, that you were so good. And it is like you to do it. You have always been the good friend to me."
The Scotchman smiled, a little wistfully. "You take a mean advantage of a man. You nurse him when he is ill—and are kind to him when he is well—and try to love him, though he is twice your age and more. Then, when his enemy is in his power, he finds he can't strike him down without striking you too. Take your young man, Sheba O'Neill, and marry him, and for God's sake, get him out of Alaska before I come to grips with him again. I'm not a patient man, and he's tried me sair. They say I'm a good hater, and I always thought it true. But what's the use of hating a man when your soft arms are round him for an armor?"
The fine eyes of the girl were wells of warm light. Her gladness was not for herself and her lover only, but for the friend that had been so nearly lost and was now found. He believed he had done it for her, but Sheba was sure his reasons lay deeper. He was too much of a man to hide evidence and let his rival be falsely accused of murder. It was not in him to do a cheap thing like that. When it came to the pinch, he was too decent to stab in the back. But she was willing to take him on his own ground.
"I'll always be thanking you for your goodness to me," she told him simply.
He brushed that aside at once. "There's one thing more, lass. I'll likely not be seeing you again alone, so I'll say it now. Don't waste any tears on Colby Macdonald. Don't fancy any story-book foolishness about spoiling his life. That may be true of halfling boys, maybe, but a man goes his ain gait even when he gets a bit facer."
"Yes," she agreed. And in a flash she saw what would happen, that in the reaction from his depression he would turn to Genevieve Mallory and marry her.
"You're too young for me, anyhow,—too soft and innocent. Once you told me that you couldn't keep step with me. It's true. You can't. It was a daft dream."
He took a deep breath, seemed to shake himself out of it, and smiled cheerfully upon her.
"We'll put our treasure-trove on the sled and go back to your friends," he continued briskly. "To-morrow I'll send men up to scour the hills for Northrup's body."
Sheba drew the canvas back over the face of the dead man. As she followed Macdonald back to the trail, tears filled her eyes. She was remembering that the white, stinging death that had crept upon these men so swiftly had missed her by a hair's breadth. The strong, lusty life had been stricken out of the big Cornishman and probably of his partner in crime. Perhaps they had left mothers or wives or sweethearts to mourn them.
Macdonald relieved Elliot at breaking trail and the young man went back to the gee-pole. They had discarded mukluks and wore moccasins and snowshoes. It was hard, slow work, for the trail-breaker had to fight his way through snow along the best route he could find. The moon was high when at last they reached the roadhouse.
DIANE CHANGES HER MIND
The news of Sheba's safety had been telephoned to Diane from the roadhouse, so that all the family from Peter down were on the porch to welcome her with mingled tears and kisses. Since Gordon had to push on to the hospital to have Holt taken care of, it was Macdonald who brought the girl home. The mine-owner declined rather brusquely an invitation to stay to dinner on the plea that he had business at the office which would not wait.
Impulsively Sheba held out both her hands to him. "Believe me, I am thanking you with the whole of my heart, my friend. And I'm praying for you the old Irish blessing, 'God save you kindly.'"
The deep-set, rapacious eyes of the Scotchman burned into hers for an instant. Without a word he released her hands and turned away.
Her eyes followed him, a vital, dynamic American who would do big, lawless things to the day of his death. She sighed. He had been a great figure in her life, and now he had passed out of it.
As soon as she was alone with Diane, her Irish cousin dropped the little bomb she had up her sleeve.
"I'm going to be married Thursday, Di."
Mrs. Paget embraced her for the tenth time within the hour. She was very fond of Sheba, and she had been on a great strain concerning her safety. That out of her danger had resulted the engagement Diane had hoped for was surplusage of good luck.
"You lucky, sensible girl."
Sheba assented demurely. "I do think I'm sensible as well as lucky. It isn't every girl that knows the right man for her even when he wants her. But I know at last. He's the man for me out of ten million."
"I'm sure of it, dear. Oh, I am so glad." Diane hugged her again. She couldn't help it.
"One gets to know a man pretty well on a trip like that. I wouldn't change mine for any one that was ever made. I like everything about him, Di. I am the happiest girl."
"I'm so glad you see it that way at last." Diane passed to the practical aspect of the situation. "But Thursday. Will that give us time, my dear? And who are you going to have here?"
"Just the family. I've invited two guests, but neither of them can come. One has a broken leg and the other says he doesn't want to see me married to another man," Sheba explained with a smile.
"So Gordon won't come."
"Yes. He'll have to be here. We can't get along without the bridegroom. It wouldn't be a legal marriage, would it?"
Diane looked at her, for the moment dumb. "You little wretch!" she got out at last. "So it's Gordon, is it? Are you quite sure this time? Not likely to change your mind before Thursday?"
"I suppose, to an outsider, I do seem fickle," Miss O'Neill admitted smilingly. "But Gordon and I both understand that."
"And Colby Macdonald—does he understand it too?"
"Oh, yes." Her smile grew broader. "He told me that he didn't think I would quite suit him, after all. Not enough experience for the place."
Diane flashed a suspicious look of inquiry. "Of course that's nonsense. What did he tell you?"
"Something like that. He will marry Mrs. Mallory, I think, though he doesn't know it yet."
"You mean she will get him on the rebound," said Diane bluntly.
"That isn't a nice way to put it. He has always liked her very much. He is fond of her for what she is. What attracted him in me were the things his imagination gave to me."
"And Gordon likes you, I suppose, for what you are?"
Sheba did not resent the little note of friendly sarcasm. "I suppose he has his fancies about me, too, but by the time he finds out what I am he'll have to put up with me."
The arrival of Elliot interrupted confidences. He had come, he said, to receive congratulations.
"What in the world have you been doing with your face?" demanded Diane. As an afterthought she added: "Mr. Macdonald is all cut up too."
"We've been taking massage treatment." Gordon passed to a subject of more immediate interest. "Do I get my congratulations, Di?"
She kissed him, too, for old sake's sake. "I do believe you'll suit Sheba better than Colby Macdonald would. He's a great man and you are not. But it isn't everybody that is fit to be the wife of a great man."
"That's a double, left-handed compliment," laughed Gordon. "But you can't say anything that will hurt my feelings to-day, Di. Isn't that your baby I heap crying? What a heartless mother you are!"
Diane gave him the few minutes alone with Sheba that his gay smile had asked for. "Get out with you," she said, laughing. "Go to the top of the hill and look at the lovers' moon I've ordered there expressly for you; and while you are there forget that there are going to be crying babies and nursemaids with evenings out in that golden future of yours."
"Come along, Sheba. We'll start now on the golden trail," said Elliot.
She walked as if she loved it. Her long, slender legs moved rhythmically and her arms swung true as pendulums.
The moon was all that Diane had promised. Sheba drank it in happily.
"I believe I must be a pagan. I love the sun and the moon and I know it's all true about the little folk and the pied piper and—"
"If it's paganism to be in love with the world, you are a thirty-third degree pagan."
"Well, and was there ever a more beautiful night before?"
He thought not, but he had not the words to tell her that for him its beauty lay largely in her presence. Her passionate love of things fine and brave transformed the universe for him. It was enough for him to be near her, to hear the laughter bubbling in her throat, to touch her crisp, blue-black hair as he adjusted the scarf about her head.
"God made the night," he replied. "So that's a Christian thought as well as a pagan one."
They were no exception to the rule that lovers are egoists. The world for them to-night divided itself into two classes. One included Sheba O'Neill and Gordon Elliot; the other took in the uninteresting remnant of humanity. No matter how far afield their talk began, it always came back to themselves. They wanted to know all about each other, to compare experiences and points of view. But time fled too fast for words. They talked—as lovers will to the end of time—in exclamations and the meeting of eyes and little endearments.
When Diane and Peter found them on the hilltop, Sheba protested, with her half-shy, half-audacious smile, that it could not be two hours since she and Gordon had left the living-room. Peter grinned. He remembered a hilltop consecrated to his own courtship of Diane.
The only wedding present that Macdonald sent Sheba was a long envelope with two documents attached by a clip. One was from the Kusiak "Sun." It announced that the search party had found the body of Northrup with the rest of the stolen gold beside him. The other was a copy of a legal document. Its effect was that the district attorney had dismissed all charges pending against Gordon Elliot.
Although Macdonald lost the coal claims at Kamatlah by reason of the report of Elliot, all Alaska still believes that he was right. In that country of strong men he stands head and shoulders above his fellows. He has the fortunate gift of commanding the admiration of friend and foe alike. The lady who is his wife is secretly the greatest of his slaves, but she tries not to let him know how much he has captured her imagination. For Genevieve Macdonald cannot quite understand, herself, how so elemental an emotion as love can have pierced the armor of her sophistication.