Again she felt the swift tensing of the flesh beneath; she fell back a step before the startling abruptness with which Steve whirled. She even threw up one small hand, as if to shield her face. And then, the cloak falling open at her throat, a slender, swaying figure in blue and shimmering white, she stood and flung a little laugh at him—a laugh a little unsteady, a bit tinged with mockery, and as untroubled as the spirit of youth itself.
"Is that the way you always prepare to greet your friends?" she asked.
The man just stood and stared at her—stared much as if he mistrusted his own ears and eyes.
"Not all my friends," his slow voice drawled at last, but even the words were tinged with doubt. "Not all my friends," he said.
And again he was conscious first of her slimness, her smallness. He was aware of the insistent, impish suggestion of boyishness in tilted head and poised body, before the rays that wavered over his shoulder from the windows behind him disclosed the misty gladness of welcome in her eyes, splashed now with points of light not so very unlike the blurred star-points in the infinitely deep, purplish pool of the sky above them. Silently the man reached out and found the hand which had lain for a moment upon his arm.
"So you are—you," he murmured, when his fingers touched hers. "I wasn't—just sure."
The girl bobbed her head—her quaint and childishly impetuous affirmative. She looked down at the hand holding her own, contemplating her small white fingers curled up now into a warm, round fist, and wondering at the completeness with which it was swallowed by his big palm.
Suddenly unable to think quite clearly, she wondered at the new pulse in her throat, which beat and beat until it seemed not easy even to speak.
"Then it—must be you, too," she faltered. "I wasn't sure, either, even when I knew it must be. I'd begun to believe that you hadn't forgotten—that you didn't care to. . . . Will you please say that you forgive me—please—for something over which I have been sorrier than you can know?"
It was not more than a wisp of sound—that request. The words were stumbling, and very earnest, and not very hard to understand. Silence came again, broken only by the treble strains of violins beyond. Once, in that quiet, his eyes strayed to the small and round, and yellow object which she carried in the crook of one arm—a tiny papier-mache pumpkin strapped to two fuzzy mice in patent leather harness—but the pumpkin coach and tiny animals were not necessary to translate her costume to him.
His eyes came back and clung to the velvety face of that slim Cinderella in bits of transparent slippers and shimmering, star-edged white, until even in spite of the gloom the girl recognized the change which had come creeping over his face. She saw it surge up in his eyes—the old undisguised wonder of the boy of ten years before, for which, until that instant, she had looked in vain—but it was a man's wonder of woman now, utter and absolute and all-enveloping. She caught her breath then; she touched her lips with a dainty tongue as though they had gone dry of a sudden. Involuntarily she stepped toward him, that single pace which she had fallen away. And above the tumult of her own senses she heard herself trying to laugh and realized how unsteady the effort was.
"Then you do forgive me?" she breathed. "Do I—pass inspection? Do you like me—in my masquerade?"
Steve answered her last question first and, lips parted, she listened, conscious of nothing save the words he was speaking.
"There was never need of a fairy-godmother for you," he told her, his voice grave. "There was never need of a transforming miracle; you have been that, always, yourself. And you are not permitted to ask forgiveness from me, nor pardon. Men do not admit that there can be need of that, where they have worshiped, as long as I have worshiped you. You knew I was coming. . . . I've been coming ten years now. But you can never know, either, how long ten years can be."
The words were blurred as a far-off echo in her ears. She started to speak, but all that she would have said caught in her throat and hurt her, and only her unsteady breath came from parted lips. Her head drooped forward again, while the small fist twisted and searched and found and clasped tight one finger of the hand that held it. She realized that his free arm was lifted toward her. As she started forward, her ankles became entangled in the soft pile of satin at her feet, and she stopped to free them—and started forward again. But when, at her inarticulate effort at speech, he bent his head to her swiftly upflung face, her whole slender body tightened at the rough contact of blue flannel against her cheek. Almost before they held her she struggled madly from the circle of his arms. White of face, white of lip, she broke away from him and darted through the gap in the hedge, only to shrink back against him in panic the next instant before the black shape upon a blacker horse, between her and the lights.
He was gazing in their direction—the man upon the horse. He was laughing softly. And when he thrust back the black cowl that hid his face and began to speak, Stephen O'Mara recognized that terribly pale, terribly drawn face. Garry Devereau rocked a little in the saddle and waved a gracefully unsteady hand.
"Blessings, my children!" he called to the two in the shadow, and his tongue was not thick, but only wavering. "My felicitations! And e'en though I know not your identity, still I may sense your fond confusion. And yet—why blush, dear unknowns? 'Tis in the air to-night. Even I myself have yielded to spirit of frivolity. Two hours ago I appeared masked in these dingy vestments as Love's Young Dream; but with me the mood has passed. Fellow romancers, you have witnessed a metamorphosis; you are now gazing upon the Wrath of God, about to thunder forth upon a coal black charger. I merely paused to bid you haste inside, lest you miss the crux of the evening. When I withdrew the Honorable Archie was already searching, with bravely concealed distraction, for the fair daughter of the house. The hour has struck—it's masks off—masks off, from eyes and hearts!"
He laughed again, a low and ugly chuckle. Sparks flew from Ragtime's hoofs when he touched the sleek flanks with his heels and the splendid animal quivered and bunched hard thigh muscles and spurned the gravel. White face whiter still against the background of his somber vestments, debonaire and drunkenly insecure in the saddle, Garret Devereau tore out into the main road and thundered off into the night.
Barbara Allison stood a long time motionless, her back to the motionless man so near her. She stood and stared, pale as had been that black-robed horseman, straight ahead of her. Then a tremor shook her. Mechanically she started forward, but at the first step Steve's hand reached out and found her arm and drew her back to him. She faced about, and waited.
"Is that—true?" he asked her, quietly.
She made no move to answer.
"Is that true?" his low and gentle voice commanded this time. "You still mean to—marry—him?"
She recovered her voice then. All her confusion and stunned realization was swallowed up by that tide of fiercely unreasoning, deadly resentment which his very gentleness evoked. There was nothing girlish in his reply—nothing boyish in that high-held chin and stiffened body. A hard note marred her utterance, a perfection of insolence edged with scorn, which Steve's world did not know. She wanted but one thing in that moment; she knew but one impulse—a mad desire to cut and tear and rend savagely his gravely possessed kindliness.
"What I have done to-night I can never hope to explain," she told him. "I can only hope that some day I may cease to despise myself as utterly as you have taught me to, at this minute. And since you choose to regard it now as your right to ask that question, I'll answer it for you. I do not mean to marry him. I shall be proud to be his wife!"
The light that streamed over her shoulder fell full upon his face. She saw the blood pour up, staining throat and cheek and brow, and then ebb away. She gave him time to answer, but he did not speak; and suddenly she knew what scene of another day he was remembering. Her eyes dropped to her imprisoned hand.
"You are—detaining me," she said.
He released her immediately, and yet she did not move. And while she waited he turned and stooped and turned to her again. She stood like stone while he wrapped her fur-edged sapphire cloak about her and fastened it close beneath her uptilted chin. He waited, bare of head, in the hedge gap until she had crossed the lawn to the house that lay a sprawling glow-worm in the darkness. A tumult of voices leaped out to him when she opened the door—a lilting crash of syncopated melody. And then it was quiet again.
After a glimpse of his chief's eyes that night, Fat Joe essayed not so much as one facetious protest against turning the fagged team homeward with scarcely any rest at all. And hour after hour he drove in silence, checking himself apologetically once or twice when he forgot himself long enough to burst into the opening strains of his inevitable ballad. He remained as quiet as that too quiet man beside him, until Steve himself opened his lips.
"It's a—lonesome night," mused the latter at length.
Fat Joe could not have endured it much longer. His pent-up spirit leaped fervidly forth in reply.
"Lonesome!" he ejaculated. "Man, it's lonesomer'n hell! Hear that damn wind sighin' in the branches, as your poets say. Hear her moan! And look at them clouds edgin' in on the moon like they was thugs a-packin' blackjacks and waitin' for an openin' to whale in. Lonesome? Say, it gives me chills, a night like this. It don't seem to have no heart, somehow, nor mercy nor nuthin', does it? It's all wrong! It ain't dark enough, and it ain't light enough; it's too quiet, and the wind makes too much noise. It keeps whisperin' over your shoulder, tauntin' yuh with somethin' you can't understand. No, sir, this kind of a night ain't popular with me, at, all, at all! . . . Say, Steve, how do you pronounce C-e-c-i-l-e?"
Steve pronounced it for him, dully inattentive, but the flood-gates of speech were opened for Joe.
"That's the way I would of handled it myself," he averred, "but I wanted to be certain sure. It ain't exactly genteel to call a lady out of her name, any way you look at it. And not that I've reached that state of exceedin' intimacy, as you might say, either. I just aim to be prepared, that's all."
He fell to whistling after that, and almost immediately his thin tenor was rolling ahead of them, through the black alley between the pines, to continue in soulful reiteration until the construction camp clearing loomed up ahead. And there, twice within a hundred yards, with the long bunk houses already visible, the weird hoot of an owl fluted through the darkness. At its third repetition Fat Joe's song hushed; he cocked his head on one side to listen, and shot a glance at Steve, but he knew that the latter had not heard. And when that night-bird's call rose again, clear and measured and louder than before, Fat Joe tightened the reins above the fagged team; he shot forward suddenly and laid the whip across their tired flanks as they cleared the last breastwork of trees.
Steve's head was jerked backward by the abruptness of their first plunge; and then he saw what Fat Joe had seen a second before. High up on the hillside there was a light glowing from the windows of the shack which served the chief engineer of the East Coast job as office and domicile, too. While Fat Joe laid on the whip a man came hurtling past the outflung door, sprang to his feet and, running low to the ground, disappeared into the blackness of the brush. Joe swung the horses up in a galloping curve and with one catlike leap, incredibly light for a man of his chunky build, was down from the seat and crashing through the bushes on the trail of that fugitive whose noisy flight had already become a faint crackle in the distance.
Flame poured from Fat Joe's revolver. Two whiplike reports shattered the night quiet before Stephen O'Mara moved. Then he lifted himself heavily from the seat. Something nuzzled his shoulder while he stood listening to the diminishing tumult of the pursuit; and even before he turned he knew what it was. He paused a moment to stroke the soft nose of the black horse standing there with reins a-trail. It was Ragtime, wet with lather and caked with dust. But even then he was not prepared for the sight which met him when he entered the shack. Seconds must have passed while he stood staring from the threshold, for Fat Joe came puffing back from his fruitless chase in time to see him bend and lift a black-robed, lifelessly limp body from the floor and stagger with it toward a bunk. Fat Joe's steady flow of profanity, oddly, double vicious in his thin, complaining voice, was checked short. He, too, stood and stared from the doorway—stood and lifted his nose and sniffed.
"Seems to be our night for callers," he remarked with bad mildness; "and, say, this one's got a peach of a load, ain't he?"
Then Garry Devereau's head rolled over, ghastly loose and slack, and the plump one caught sight of a ragged gash in the senseless man's temple.
"So-o, that's it?" he droned, and his complaining voice was deadly again. "So that's it! But he wasn't so far gone that he couldn't put up a tidy little battle, was he? Funny about that, too, but I could always do my best little jobs of man-handling when I was about half-over myself."
His pale eyes swept the floor; he pounced forward and recovered a sheaf of blue-prints from a corner.
"This, I take it," he muttered, "was what they was arguing about when we busted in. Steve, them's our bridge estimates—and there wa'n't no copies of 'em, either. It wouldn't take us more than two weeks to replace 'em neither—not more'n two precious, priceless weeks. I'm only hopin' now that when our other caller, who seems to want them more than we do, calls again, I'll be here myself to entertain him, with tea or somethin'. I'd plumb hate to seem so inhospitable as not to be home, twice hand-runnin', to visitors."
Fat Joe's round face was congested with murderous rage before he had finished, but Steve seemed hardly to have heard him at all. He had finally straightened out that sickeningly slack figure upon his own bunk. He was listening now to his heart, and at a jerk of his head Fat Joe joined him at the bedside. The latter's thick fingers were as delicate, as competent, as a skilled physician's might have been. He, too, listened and peeled back the unconscious man's eyelids. He shook his head, dubiously.
"Maybe that was a tidy little battle, while it lasted," he stated, "but it ain't deuce high alongside this fight we've got on our hands right now. For he's just as near over as I'd care to see a man, unless it was someone I'd a little prefer dead! It ain't that scratch on the head that's got him slippin', either." Joe paused and turned to address Garry Devereau's still white face itself. "You sat in an' backed my game like a gentleman born," he said, "and now I'm a-goin' to play yourn, blue chips and white and yello'. But this is goin' to be your last celebration, friend of mine, even if we do win through, or you'll be holdin' your next one where the company ain't so select and the climate nuthin' to compare with ourn!"
And while he talked he worked, for it was Fat Joe who gave the orders that night. He called for ammonia, for brandy, for a half-dozen drugs from the camp hospital chest; and each of them Steve brought in an automatic fashion that finally penetrated even Fat Joe's professional pleasure in the struggle.
"Friend of yourn?" he asked in an interval while they rested.
"A friend," Steve repeated with a tightening of his jaws, and Joe knew what that tone meant.
After that they fought on in silence, side by side—sometimes waiting, sometimes fighting, both of them, to hold that horribly racked man upon the bed. He fought them with every pound of strength in his emaciated body. He moaned up at them, screamed at them, cursed them frothingly, and Fat Joe hung on and cursed him back—cursed him and promised him profanely that he would not let him die. Steve's face was gray, sweat was pouring from Fat Joe's scarlet face when the life-tide ebbed lowest and there came a sudden cessation in that stream of babbled madness, Garry Devereau lay so quiet that an oath jerked huskily from Fat Joe's lips; but when he had listened at the motionless chest he lifted his head and smiled, seraphically.
"There, by God," he stated in his high, complaining tenor, "there, by God! And if I ain't created a vacancy in the angel chorus aloft, then I'm a liar!"
And his explosive diagnosis proved to be as correct as it was utterly unprofane in spirit. Before day broke there came an hour when Garry Devereau lifted himself upon one elbow and opened his eyes to stare half wildly, but very sanely, about the room. His gaze flitted wonderingly from wall to wall before it rested, fearfully fixed, upon Steve's brown face. Instantly he looked away, flinchingly, and met Fat Joe's voluminous grin—and looked back again, cunningly cautious. Finally he reached out a timid, blue-veined, pitifully unsteady hand and plucked at Steve's blue flannel sleeve. And his words were an echo of those which Stephen O'Mara had heard before that night from other lips.
"Then you—are you," he framed the words laboriously. "I wasn't sure—even when I knew it must be."
And Garry Devereau tried to smile—his slow smile of sophistry.
"Greetings, Sir Galahad!" he faltered. "And how are you, Steve—and who might your—fat friend be?"
A MATTER OF ORNITHOLOGY
Of all the fragmentary pictures which those crowded twelve hours left registered upon Stephen O'Mara's brain, none proved more enduring than did the change which Garry Devereau's first haltingly weak but very sane greeting wrought in the expression on Fat Joe's pink visage that morning. The banter in Garry's labored words was so characteristic of the mocking spirit of the man who had come back the same inexplicably intimate friend which the boy had been, that it left Steve's dry throat speechless for the moment. The visible effect upon Fat Joe was even more positive.
Almost before he had finished his facetious query as to the identity of the one who had dragged him through that bad night Gary fell asleep; he slipped off into slumber, the very calmness of which guaranteed that the crisis had passed. But the lugubrious astonishment which the question had evoked consumed more time in fading from Joe's face. The latter's jaw had sagged open; he dragged a sleeve across his damp forehead while he stood and gazed in a sort of dumb dismay down at those pale and handsome features. Then he chuckled suddenly; his whole squat body shook with comprehensive mirth.
"Now what do you think of that!" he gurgled in admiration. "What do you think of that? A-hangin' on all night, alive once in a while, maybe, but the best you could say for him the rest of the time was a hope that he wasn't dead. And now coming at us with the airy persiflage, the first regular breath he's drawed. Fat! It was me he meant to indicate, wasn't it? He was joshin' me! Say, Steve, ain't he the merry little joker? Me—fat! Now that's real funny—I'll leave it to you if it ain't."
Fat Joe leaned over and drew a blanket a little higher across the sleeping man's shoulder, while Steve continued silently to study Garry's face. Even in unconsciousness a faintly crooked smile of skepticism still clung to the lips.
"It was like him," Steve remarked at last, very soberly. "Somehow, the minute he began to speak I knew it was exactly the sort of thing I expected him to say. The probability of death is a much more amusing prospect to some men, Joe, than the perplexity of living."
Fat Joe flashed a swift, half-puzzled glance at his chief's face; he started to ask a question, then scowled and checked himself and turned instead to kindle a fire in the stove of the lean-to kitchen of the cabin. But a half-hour later he was still murmuring the last phrase over to himself, perplexedly, when Steve came leading the horse Ragtime up to the open door. Saddled and with reins a-trail, the animal had been wandering throughout the night about the upper end of the construction camp clearing. At the sound of hoofbeats outside Fat Joe left the stove and the half-cooked breakfast he had set himself to prepare. From the doorway he stared through narrowed lids.
For the moment Joe had half forgotten those night birds whose mournful hooting along the trail, a few hours back, had first stirred him to alert suspicion. While he was struggling with Garry Devereau's faltering heart he had had scant leisure to devote to the problem of the other man's identity—that shadowy figure which had come plunging out of the cabin door and gone crashing off into the brush, a noisy but invisible target for his revolver. Now recognition and a light of partial understanding rose and intermingled in his eyes.
"So that's the way one of 'em come," he murmured. "I was wondering some. Last night I didn't notice the horse, being a mite too hurried to give ample attention to details, as it were. But ain't—ain't this one of Allison's horses?"
Steve straightened from an examination of a deep scratch in one of Ragtime's knees and stood, back to the door, slowly stroking the soft black nose. Just as well as though it had been voiced he caught the unphrased inference in the plump one's query. After a time he shook his head, absently, in negation.
"No, Joe," he answered heavily. "He is from Allison's stables, but we have him to thank, just the same, along with Garry, for our blue-prints and estimates. It was Mr. Devereau whom he brought up here last night, and in fairly good time I should judge, too, from the pace at which they set out. Garry turned him into the hill-road, and he must have stuck to it blindly until he struck our fork." And, after a longer pause: "The horse is Miss Allison's own property," he added quietly.
Joe pursed his lips. Instantly, at the mention of the girl's name, he felt himself better equipped to understand both the lack of immediate action and the seeming preoccupied indifference of his superior which, in the face of the night's developments, would have been otherwise utterly unaccountable that morning.
There had been more than one instance of gross neglect and misinterpreted orders, particularly in the last week or so, that might have resulted disastrously if luck had not been with them; but Fat Joe had been unable to convince the chief engineer of the East Coast Company that their repetition was in any way a thing of sinister import. Steve had merely smiled at his dogged belief in a veiled campaign of opposition, blaming the minor catastrophes upon blundering incompetence which they could hope to combat by unflagging vigilance alone. And now, when the finding of the roll of estimates upon the floor and the blood clotted crease in Garry Devereau's forehead made further argument superfluous, his listlessness would have left Fat Joe alarmed had it not been for a recollection of the light he had glimpsed in Steve's eyes at the beginning of their sudden and unexplained return to camp the night before, and his brooding silence on the road. At the mention of Barbara Allison's name it all recurred to Joe in nicely balanced and comforting sequence. Fat Joe confessed shamelessly to a romantic soul. And it helped him now to choose his own course of action, even though he had, for once, misread the other's mood.
For if Steve had not forgotten the picture which Garry Devereau had made, robed and cowled and areel in the saddle, any more than he could ever hope to forget the slim, shimmering figure who had shrunk back against him in panic, there in the shadow of the hedge, both pictures had momentarily given way to an even more vivid memory. He was thinking of Miriam Burrell's face and her last words to him: "I have heard, Mr. O'Mara, that you have once or twice fought your way out of the dark, when everybody else had lost hope. I want an opportunity to talk with—a specialist in such campaigns!"
The probable nearness of him who had gone bounding away empty-handed from the lighted shack was of far less moment than the possible identity of the one who had furnished the inspiration of that night raid. And to Steve the need of assuring that tall girl with the vivid lips and coppery hair of Garry Devereau's safety bulked quite as important as did the advisability of seeking immediately an informal interview with Dexter Allison, such as the latter himself had so genially suggested.
But Fat Joe, squinting at his chief's broad back, misread the signs that morning. From where he stood in the doorway he could see the men of the upper camp already swarming out over the works, some of them mere dots across the expanse of swamp-land. The rhythmic beat of pile-drivers thudded in his ears; raucous echoes of shouted orders floated up from the nearest gang-bosses, and punctuating it all came the intermittent boom of dynamite explosions from far north in the deep cut alongside the river edge.
The construction camp had been nearly two hours awake; the race against a well-nigh impossible time limit which would brook neither mistake nor miscalculation had been picked up automatically at daybreak, where it had hesitated at nightfall the day before. While he stared down at this activity, a realization of the months of bitter toil which stood between them and ultimate, uncertain success, crept over Fat Joe. Little by little his features took on that look of hard and dangerous setness which always seemed so doubly threatening upon his placidly round countenance. And as casually as he was able he elected to go upon that errand of which his chief must have lost sight, in a dulled and moody contemplation of an entirely different matter.
"Maybe," Joe suggested vaguely, "maybe I'll just ask you to watch these things on the stove a while, Steve. I've got the fire to drawin' and some coffee set on, because I knew we'd need 'em before that cook-boy got his eyes open wide enough to see his way up here. It ain't exactly a fancy repast, neither, so it won't tax your culinary skill none to tend it. I—there's something I'd like to look into a little—something I sort of lost sight of while we were soothing our mutual friend in yonder. But I'll be back in a minute. I'll just run down and see if everybody's onto his job."
Hard on the heels of that explanation he started rapidly down the long bare slope and Steve watched his departure without comment. While Joe was gone he tethered the black horse at the door frame, found a nose-bag and methodically presented the grateful beast with his breakfast. And when Fat Joe returned he had finished preparing the meal which the former had begun; in absent-minded inattention that resulted in more than one perilously close call, with one hand he was placing brimming cups of blistering hot coffee beside the plates of food and condensed milk-cans upon the table, while he leafed slowly through the sheaf of blue-prints with the other, satisfying himself that they were untampered with. Fat Joe shook his head mournfully over this last exhibition and dropped into a chair.
They ate in silence that morning—a silence so heavy that the faint breathing of Garry in the bunk beyond them sounded almost stentorian at times. More than once Joe's gaze went to that colorless face; just as often it searched Steve's gravely unreadable countenance, and it was Fat Joe who first found the silence no longer endurable.
"What," he ventured to interrupt the other's brooding, "what is it, Steve, you call one of them little, gangling, bow-spectacled guys that fools his waking hours away studyin' the customs and morals and suchlike of birds and things?"
Almost immediately Steve's face grew less blank at that bland question, and although his eyes failed to shift from the invisible point beyond Joe at which he was staring, his lips did curl a little. He had long before learned to play up, solemnly, to those unprefaced and disingenuous leads.
"Ornithologist?" he inquired soberly. "Ornithologist—if that is what you mean."
Joe nodded briskly.
"That's it!" he exclaimed. "I knew it was ornery something-or-other, and—and that makes it fit the case all the prettier, now don't it? Because in the last half-hour or so, since I left you here to tend to the cookin', I've been studying the birds somewhat myself. And having been a little successful, so to speak, I'm ornerier'n even before I commenced." He stopped to swallow half the steaming coffee in his cup, and if when he began again his voice had hardened perceptibly, it was nevertheless still elaborately guileless. "Steve," he said, "have you ever stopped to consider real close and earnest any of the peculiarities of our feathered friends? Say—well, say owls, for instance?"
Then Steve ceased to smile. He thought a moment, but his reply remained tuned to the other's artless key.
"Why, yes," he drawled. "Yes, and no. As for the latter, however, I will admit that I have always believed their reputation for—er—wisdom to be a greatly overestimated thing."
Widely Fat Joe grinned his pleasure. His chief's eyes were no longer vague nor blank.
"Which just bears out my own personal research in the field," he stated. "Not that I'm saying I've been real thorough in the matter, because I ain't had the time. But what I've done I accomplished because I just naturally dote on that kind of thing." His eye flitted carelessly toward a window. "I happened to run into Harrigan, too, this morning," he murmured.
As disinterestedly as had Joe, Steve now drained his coffee cup and waited.
"He was down to the cook shanty," Fat Joe rambled on. "It's an hour since he'd ought to have been out there with the powder squad in the north cut, and when I asks him if he was feelin' indisposed this morning he says no, but the supply teams was going out and one of the drivers had told him that I was sending him along to help with the loadin'. He had such a nice, frank, open-faced way of lying that I couldn't bring myself to correct him. I just let it stand that way and told him such was the arrangement." Joe saw swift satisfaction play across Steve's face. "And—and then, after that, him and me—why, we just drifted off into a real interestin' and scientific discussion about them birds I been mentionin' to you. We—somehow we got to discoursing about owls.
"I told him I'd never noticed 'em to hoot so close together and persistent as they did last night, down along the trail, and wondered if by any chance he'd heard 'em, too. And he said he had. He's a nice smooth talker, Harrigan is, when he ain't too sober and not too drunk. Oh, yes, he'd heard 'em, being wakeful, he explained, what with worrying all night whether we'd ever get this line of steel laid before our contract run out on us! Now wasn't that interestin'—wasn't it, especially coming from him? Neatly put and self-possessed, I call it. He was worried because he's dreadful superstitions. [Transcriber's note: superstitious?] He claims when them birds gets to hedgin' in on each other's solos like they did last night it's a sign of bad luck or an accident for somebody, sure. That give me an opening to ask him if the accident hadn't happened already, him having a bandage around his head not much different from this one our friend here is wearing. But he couldn't see it that way. A scratch he called it—just a scratch from a twig."
The room was very quiet for a breath. That thin note had crept into Fat Joe's tenor voice—thin and chill and menacing. And there as abruptly as he had assumed it, he flung aside his mask of disingenuous irrelevance. Fat Joe wheeled, put both elbows upon the table edge and leaned forward heavily. It was much as though he were setting himself to shoulder by sheer weight through the discouraging wall of indifference behind which the other was apparently withdrawing once more.
"But as for me," his high voice rang a little, "but as for me—well, I always did pride myself that I could shoot some, whether it was by daylight or dark!"
And the only result which that statement achieved was an answering, meditative nod. Fat Joe subsided. All that he could say had been said, and they finished breakfast as they had begun it, in absolute silence. But when Steve, with a word, halted him in the doorway as Joe was on the point of returning to the work in the valley, the latter turned to find the slow smile which he knew so well hovering upon the younger man's lips. He fairly gulped in his sudden relief.
"Joe," Stephen O'Mara began, and the words were suspiciously unsteady for those of a man who was bearing up bravely under a hidden sorrow, "Joe, you've missed your calling, I'm afraid. As a naturalist you might have scored an instant and sensational success, in spite of the fact that you are neither bow-spectacled nor—er—gangling, as no doubt Mr. Devereau's reference to you has this morning made plain."
He stopped to touch a match to the dry grains of tobacco which he had been tamping into the bowl of his pipe; he swung slowly around toward the inert figure on the bunk. When he spoke again the thread of raillery was gone from his voice.
"He'll sleep the day through, I think," he said, "and the night, perhaps. But I'd advise you to look in on him now and then, just the same. He did us a good turn last night. It's the second good turn he's done for me, Joe. And now perhaps the chance has come to even up the score a little. You would know, wouldn't you, Joe, just how many drinks to prescribe for a man who has been as—as ill as Garry has?"
Fat Joe's face commenced to shine, and at that he was only beginning to understand.
"Ain't I the doctor?" he demanded aggrievedly. "You don't have to go no deeper into technicalities with me. And I told you last night, anyway, didn't I, that it would have to be his last little celebration, unless he was figurin' on a longer journey than he's ever took before. Well, I've handled so many cases just like his that there ain't even a little enjoyable novelty in 'em any more for me."
Steve received the statement with another nod.
"That's it," he mused. "That's it exactly. It would have to be his last, unless he is figuring on a longer journey than he has ever taken before."
He crossed and leaned over the thin and motionless form of his friend. He laid one hand gently upon the sleeping man's shoulder.
"He did that for me once, Joe," he spoke quietly. "He dropped his hand on my shoulder like that, and I never forgot the weight of it. You watch him, Joe—watch him closely for a while, because—because, you see, a man does stray along once in so often who's so badly bewildered and trail weary, so tired of trying and—and hurt in soul, that the thought of such a journey as you speak of begins to seem the shortest route after all to an end of thoughts which even alcohol can't wipe out. You take care of him, and if he wakes before I get back, explain to him a little just how he came here, and thank him a lot for what he did. Ask him to wait until I come back from Morrison, will you?"
For a moment Joe just stood and blinked, dumfounded.
"Huh!" he blurted at last. "Huh! So that's what you been hintin' at all the time, is it? I didn't just get you right until now. But, do you know, it did seem to me once or twice while we were working over him—once or twice when the goin' was pretty bad—that his spirit wasn't heaving real hearty into the traces. And, say, ain't that a poor idea for a guy to get into his head? Now ain't it?" And then, as the purport of the rest of Steve's words struck home: "Do you mean you are going to Morrison to have a——"
Steve recrossed to the door and began to unfasten the feed-bag from Ragtime's nose.
"And now about this ornithological problem, Joe," he cut in with a blandness that outdid Joe's best effort. "About owls in particular! Your research work was illuminating; in view of its casual nature it was unbelievably helpful. But personally I feel that a thorough sifting of the matter requires slightly different methods. One should endeavor to get at the thing in its embryonic state, as—as it were. Don't you think so? If one could locate the place of incubation, the—er—nest from which these night birds of yours first stretched their wings, it might prove really worth while—no? And—and at the same time I'll just return Miss Allison's horse to her, too, this morning."
He leaned over to lengthen a stirrup; stopped again to light his pipe.
"Watch things," he called, as he swung to the saddle and put Ragtime to the slope. "Watch things!" His voice drifted up from below, clear and eager, and alive with mirth. "And drive 'em, Joe—drive 'em—drive 'em from daylight till dark!"
From the threshold Fat Joe watched him until horse and rider disappeared beyond the line of timber; with broad face aglow he stood, head cocked upon one side.
Then, "He was figurin'," he muttered in blithe delight, "he was a-figurin' to himself, all the time I thought he was thinking about her! I guess my own mind has lately got to dwelling too insistent on trivial things, for a laboring man. . . . He's taking her back her horse—real broke up and sorrowful like over the prospect of seein' her again so soon, too, now wasn't he? And me—me sympathizin' with him! Sometimes, Joe, your lack of penetration is plumb aggravatin' to me. You talk a lot, but you don't say much! You got to learn to listen."
He stepped forward, remembered and turned back into the cabin. There was womanish solicitude in the scrutiny he bent upon Garry Devereau's crookedly smiling face.
"You and me was ordained to be friends," he declared oratorically, "because anybody that Steve O'Mara calls friend is good enough for me. And so I'll just naturally have to persuade you to put off indefinitely this idea of a prolonged excursion, won't I—convince you maybe of the unnumbered delights of our own earthly suburb, as it were. And fat, eh? You think I'm fat, do you? Well, that's a matter we'll have to thrash out when you come to—that and one other which ain't going to be half so amusin' nor congenial while under consideration. About the best I can promise you for both of them arguments is that you ain't got a chance to win either. I got my orders to take care of you."
He tiptoed to the door and went with his oddly light and cat-footed tread down the hill. Just once more he paused, halfway between the headquarters of the East Coast Company's chief engineer and the thudding pile-drivers at the edge of the swamp.
"It won't be so lonesome, having him for company," he told himself. "It'll be a new mind to delve into,—that is, if he'll only listen a little to reason, when he wakes up. And I wonder if he takes kindly to a little friendly game. I wonder, now—I wonder!"
NOT A CHANCE IN THE WORLD
Barbara Allison's presence upon the dusty hill-road that morning was more than the result of a merely casual whim, even though, when she turned her mount north into that mountain highway a scant two hours before, the choice had been made without actual thought for the route which she was selecting. And yet, conscious or instinctive, the choice had brought her the things for which both brain and spirit were ahunger that morning: A silence so profound that the vague, crackling wood noises which disturbed it from time to time were not noises at all, but only a part of its very being; a solitude so breathlessly big and sweeping that she must needs throw out both slim arms finally in a childishly eager effort to embrace a tithe of it—and a chance to be alone!
The night before, as soon as she had re-entered hurriedly the glowing lodge asprawl upon the hill, the impulse had first come to her—a swift and almost blind desire to turn and escape, if only for a little while, from the roomful of chatter and laughter and bright-eyed badinage loosed upon her immediately after the unmasking, by Dexter Allison's perfectly cadenced announcement of his daughter's engagement. All in a breath the huge room had become stiflingly oppressive; the gaiety unbearable. And at the end of the first half-hour following her truancy she might have yielded to the impulse, pleading the first flimsy excuse which would have purchased an opportunity to reconstruct that hysterically mad minute or two with him whom she had just left a little before in the hedge-gap, had not Miriam Burrell, at the very moment of decision, stung her into realization of what meaning such an act might convey to other less generous minds.
That tall and lithe-bodied and abrupt-tongued friend of hers, colorless cheeks even paler against the black background, of her Mongolian costume, still had eyes for the change which had come over the younger girl, in spite of the terror which had been congealing her own heart since the moment of unmasking. Her vivid lips were still able to smile, stiffly, when she finally drew Barbara into a corner and under cover of her lacquered fan mockingly pinched a little color into her wan cheeks. But that strange girl failed to realize how much of scorn for a thing she labeled her own cowardice, she put into her words that night.
"Please remember, dear child," she whispered, "that you are on exhibition as the ingenuously happy bride-to-be. If you are going to play the game this way, like the rest of them, why not be a good sport and play it for all there is in it? One owes it to one's partner, you know, not to reveal entirely the weakness of the hand that's just been dealt. You should smile—at least a little!"
Barbara, brain already hopelessly entangled, wheeled in astonishment at the almost viciously satirical suggestion, refusing even while her face flamed to believe that she had caught correctly the impossibly cynical, unbelievably unkind insinuation of this girl who was her closest friend. But Miriam's eyes silenced the demand for an explanation, which had risen with an hitherto unknown coldness to her lips. Instead Barbara reached out impetuously and took the girl's icy wrist in both her own hands.
"Miriam, child, what is it?" she breathed. "What is the matter, dear? You're ill—you're cold as death!"
And at that the lash of scornful intolerance for all things hypocritical, the flick of which Barbara had never known before, was gone from Miriam's tongue. She moistened her lips and tried to speak, and had to try again before her voice would come.
"Have you—seen Garry?" she asked huskily. "Do you know where he went?"
The hopelessness of the query made possible but one interpretation of all that lay behind it, and yet Barbara, who had not so much as guessed at it until now, refused the thought as too fantastic for credence. Again a wave of conscious color stained her face.
"Do you mean since—since——" Her lips refused to phrase it, but Miriam finished it for her.
"Since he went swinging out into the dark on Ragtime." She, too, strained at the sentence, but for an entirely different reason. "I was looking for him, but I was too late. Bobs, all evening his eyes have been mad—his mood insane! I heard just his last word or two to you and—Mr. O'Mara, out there on the lawn. His father, you know—but you don't think. . . . Barbara, I'm frightened—I'm so terribly frightened!"
It ended in a little moan of fear. And now, astounded past all belief, Barbara understood. But before she could speak the seeming need of woman reassurance, no matter how illogical, was gone. Amazingly, all in an instant, the living dread disappeared from Miriam's face; she stiffened and threw back her head with that short laugh which contained so little of mirth, so much that was hard to translate. And the Honorable Archibald Wickersham, appearing the same instant at Barbara's elbow, frowned at its note of derision.
"I've just been warning Barbara," the tall girl was already drawling with consummate impudence, "that the record of past performances are all against your finishing the distance without coming a cropper in these international matrimonial hurdles. Just what is your opinion, Archibald?"
Wickersham had never liked Miriam Burrell. Now he smiled a trifle wryly into her insolently uptilted face, without attempting to answer the question. And during the next dance with Barbara he unburdened himself, rather positively for him, of his distaste for her. The pronounced frown, however, remained even longer upon his countenance.
But that one moment had served where everything else might have failed. For the rest of the evening Barbara was again a creature of moods so frothy, so evanescent that she swept aside even Wickersham's habit of precision. And if the spur that brightened her eyes and quickened her laughter was, after all, nothing more nor less than a hot contempt for herself—for the stolen moment in the hedge-gap and the inexplicable impulse upon which she had all but acted following it—her merriment was none the less a palpitant thing.
And yet afterward, alone in her room, when the last treble note had died away and she had dismissed Cecile, her sleepy-eyed maid, the sense of oppression had returned redoubled. She did not want to sleep; she was glad of her wide-eyed wakefulness, but in the darkness walls and ceiling and floor seemed fairly to close in upon her and hedge in soul and brain as well as body. It was the first time the girl had ever known the need—the driving desire—to be alone out of doors, where there was nothing but sky and skyline to bound her thoughts. And at last, when her restlessness became no longer bearable, while the remainder of the house still slept behind drawn curtains, she rose and slipped into boots and breeches and riding coat, and descended to order a not too wide-awake groom to saddle a horse. And in the very middle of his sensational report of Ragtime's empty stall she swung to the saddle and turned toward the north.
She rode hard at first. She put the small roan mare between her knees to a pounding gallop, pulling to a walk only after the rushing air had whipped back into her cheeks a part at least of the glow which the sleepless night had robbed from them. And if the tang of the trees and the solitude and the warmth of the sun did their work slowly, they nevertheless did it well. Little by little her tense body relaxed; the line of her lips softened. Almost before she realized it that morning, she had relegated her anxiety over Garry Devereau and her astonishment at the confession which she had beheld in Miriam's eyes to a rather hazy background, and turned to those very thoughts against which she had fought so fiercely throughout the night. She drifted into a surprisingly unanalytical and most femininely inquisitive wonder concerning a tall figure in blue flannel and corduroy. She suddenly found herself pondering the very incidents which, a few hours before, had set her small fists to clenching in a tide of incomprehensible resentment—against herself or him she could not for the life of her tell.
Mile after mile, the roan mare placidly choosing the pace, she rode with one leg dangling over the pummel of the saddle, everything else forgotten in that preoccupied endeavor to review each moment she had shared with him. Again she felt his arm harden threateningly under her startled clasp as a red-headed and very drunk river-man lurched out of a doorway ahead of them; with breath softly audible between arched lips she tried to recall the gentleness of his hands when he was refastening her cloak beneath her rigidly upflung chin. And when the higher morning sun found her far beyond the rolling pasture land, miles in the heavy timber, she had dismounted, there where the highest loop in the road commanded its breath-taking sweep of country, and was sitting cross-legged upon the trunk of a fallen tree at the road edge. Frowning a little over the vexing uncertainty of details, Barbara was wondering just what their next meeting would be like; she had just finished picturing his man's discomfort and self-consciousness and lack of ease and, with a soberness so childish it would have dumbfounded her had she given it thought, was nodding approvingly over a contemplation of her own kind cordiality, when that very blue-shirted figure itself rounded a near corner in the narrow lane between the trees. Stephen O'Mara, in the flesh, appeared before her, astride Ragtime and leading her roan, which, contentedly cropping the bush tops, had disappeared a full quarter of an hour before.
The girl gasped at the suddenness of his coming; she half started to rise before she remembered the instability of her perch, and then crouched even lower than before when she saw that he was not yet aware of her nearness. It was not at all like the encounter which she had so ably managed in her imagination an instant before, and somehow that graciously kind greeting of hers was lost completely through the perversity of an utterly different mood. She waited, eyes gleefully bright, until he was almost opposite her before she coughed, ever so faintly. Then she tilted her nose aloft in enchanting mimicry of his lean and forward-thrust face.
"We never speak," she confided dolefully to the empty air in front of her, "we never speak as we pass by." He whirled. So swiftly that it took her breath he was out of the saddle and across the road, and standing knee-deep in the undergrowth beside her. Only his profile had been visible to her at first. Now the white line of his jaw and the light in the eyes that searched her face chilled her, even while they sent the blood singing in every vein. Only a few hours before she had seen that same cold fear in Miriam Burrell's eyes; and yet not the same, either, for hers had been a panic of lost hope, and the gleam in the man's eyes was already only partly dread of disaster and partly a great and unmistakable glow of thankfulness. Barbara remembered then, with a twinge of guilt, that she could have forgotten it so completely, the black-robed figure that had gone thundering off on the same mount which Stephen O'Mara was riding now. She half lifted both hands to him, apprehensively.
"You aren't going to tell me, are you," she asked, "that anything dreadful has happened to Garry?"
Dumbly, but most reassuringly, Steve shook his head. From the top of her hatless, wind-tossed, brown-crowned head to the tips of the absurdly small boots tucked up beneath her, he scanned her slim body. Barbara realized that he was trying to speak and finding the effort hard. Slowly he removed his hat and passed one hand across his forehead.
"Man," he ejaculated fervidly to himself, "but that's the longest hundred yards you've ever traveled, on foot or a-horseback!" And abruptly, accusingly, to her: "Do you know that I've been months and years and ages rounding that bend to—to find you a little crumpled-up heap in the road?"
After all, her unaccountably high spirits may have been only the natural reaction from the hours of depression through which she had lately passed. But whatever the reason behind it, Barbara's levity was a totally spontaneous, deliciously colored thing. She sat and tilted her head at him in audacious provocation; she assumed as chastened an expression as she could in the face of her very real relief at the news of Garry's safety.
"I'm sorry," she murmured humbly. "I'm sorry to—disappoint you. But, you see, I didn't know——"
She laughed at him. Her lips curled, petal-like, in a gurgling peal of enjoyment at his shame-faced grin.
"I found your horse rolling," he explained, and his gravity was dogged in the face of her brightness. "How I knew it was yours I don't know, but I did just the same. I thought she had thrown you; I'd already made up my mind, if there was one scratch on your body, to take that mare's head between my hands and break her neck! You see, I believed I knew already just what it would mean to me if anything ever happened to you. But it's a lot different imagining the world without you—and—and facing the actual possibility of it. Was I—fairly tragic?"
And now it was his turn to laugh over her pink-faced disconcernment. Most decidedly it was not the sort of an encounter which she had been contemplating a moment earlier. There was no discomfort in that big, loose-limbed body. She had imagined him as just a little moody and sad-eyed, at least. And now she realized that she had never seen the latter so easy to read as they were at that minute. Gray as the shadowed silver thread of the river far below in the valley, they glowed with a great gladness for her safety, and far, far more than just that. The alarming cheerfulness of his gaze was too confusing to sustain.
"Of course you've found Garry," she hastened to swing the conversation to a less personal quarter. "Is he—will you tell me about it, please?"
One small, gauntleted hand made an almost imperceptible gesture toward the unoccupied space beside her on the fallen tree. But he chose the ground at her feet. And after he had disposed his long length to his liking he answered her hurried question—answered it with an amiably lazy deliberation that promised a sure return to a topic of his own choosing, in his own good time.
"No," he stated, and there was something lugubrious in the baldness of the statement. "He found me. And it was the biggest stroke of luck that he did. I grow more and more lucky this morning, wouldn't you say so?"
The question was quite innocently direct. No, decidedly he was not discomfited—not ill at ease at all! Apparently he found it much easier to look at her than at any of the points of interest in the landscape toward which her glances persisted in flitting. While he marveled, without any manifestations of sorrow whatever, at the curve of her throat and the satin texture of that cheek turned toward him, he told her drawlingly all there was to tell of the night before. And after a time Barbara forgot her warm face and the too plain message there in his eyes, in her growing excitement over that recitation. When he stopped her first question instinctively pounced upon the one detail he had purposely withheld.
"But you must have an inkling as to the man's identity," she cried. "Why, you've got to find that out, before he does more harm next time. Haven't you a suspicion, even?"
One foot swung free; she leaned forward in her eagerness, a slender and entirely boyish figure in diminutive breeches and boots and straight-lined coat. And the man laughed aloud up into her flushed face, softly and not quite steadily at her hostile indignation, her intuitive feminine curiosity, and most of all, most unsteadily, at his wonder of her, herself.
"Why, yes," he admitted. "Both Joe and I do believe we know who it was, but we aren't sure because we don't understand yet what that man's motive might be. I'd tell you, only I don't like to accuse anybody until there is cause for it. But that's what brought me down here this morning—that and because I wanted to tell Miss Burrell that Garry is safe, and will continue to be from now on, I hope. Those were two of my reasons for coming, at least. I had a more important one than either, but——"
Barbara did not wait for him to tell her what it was. She was staring at him in unfeigned surprise.
"To tell Miriam?" she echoed. "Do you—you can't mean that you knew she cared for Garry?"
The girl shook her head.
"Never, until just a little while ago! I—do you know, in the last few days I've begun to realize how much more you—other people—observe than I do. I've begun to wonder if I haven't been very blindly self-sufficient. For I never dreamed of such a thing, until something happened after I left you last night." Her voice faltered, but her eyes clung resolutely to his. "She came to me and asked me if I knew where he had gone. She had seen him ride away, too, Mr. O'Mara. And I learned it then, just from the terror in her face. But I didn't know until later how much she cared.
"She came into my room this morning, and that, although you can't know it, was more than odd in itself, because I have always been the one to carry my woes to her. It must have been between four and five, for I had counted a clock striking four; and yet she was still dressed in her party costume. Have you guessed what she had been doing? Mr. O'Mara, she had been out looking for him! She had slipped out and been waiting because she was sure Ragtime would bolt and—and come back home, dragging him by a stirrup! Wasn't that a horrible thing to wait for, alone in the dark?"
With a little shudder the girl put her hands over her eyes, as if to shut out the picture.
"She wasn't hysterical, either. She was—just—ice! And wringing wet and blue with cold. Cool, proud, intolerant Miriam Burrell—and I'd never dreamed of her caring for anybody, until that minute. I sent her to bed and I think I hated Garry Devereau for an hour or two. Why, Mr. O'Mara, I'd never believed that a girl could care that much for any man!"
He stopped toying with a handful of dry twigs and let them slip away between his fingers. She saw his head come up; saw his eyes narrow. Then her own body stiffened as she realized what she had said. And yet it was, after all, only a part of something she had decided she must make clear to him, ever since he had surprised her there at the road edge; it was part of an explanation which, without quite knowing why, she felt was due to him. But she had not meant to employ that abrupt confession as a preface. That made it inconceivably harder, it seemed. And he, silent at her feet, stared out at the blue rim of the hills and gave her no assistance now—not so much as a smile. She sat a long time, nursing one slim knee between her palms.
"Mr. O'Mara," she appealed to him at last, "how might one reopen a—a rather difficult subject with—with a suddenly most difficult conversationalist?"
Without turning his head he made answer:
"I think Fat Joe's method is as good as any," he suggested. "Joe says the only way to reopen any argument is to take a running jump and land all spraddled out, right in the middle of it. He insists that such procedure leaves no doubt in the mind of anyone that the discussion is about to be resumed."
She laughed a little.
"Then shall we consider that I've taken—the—the jump, and landed?"
Just when she was wishing most that she could see his face he swung around toward her. Again his gravity was a totally gentle thing. It made her remember the self-possessed kindliness with which he had met her unreasoning rage the night before.
"You don't have to explain," he told her, "unless you are sure you want to. Sometimes, you see, I understand things without any special explanation. It's a trick one learns from living alone a lot with one's own thoughts. I told you, last night, that I wouldn't have you saying 'I'm sorry' to me. And now I'll tell you that nothing you can ever say, now, is going to stop me from——"
"I want to, please," she interrupted him vehemently. "I—have to! And I'm not going to make believe that I don't know what you are going to tell me—what you have been saying to me, all morning. But it can't do any good. Why, I'm just realizing that something which has been hurting me for hours was just—just sorrow for you. It can't do any good, oh, truly! But will you let me talk first, if I promise to listen afterward?"
"Twice I've been bitterly unkind to you," she began again. "Once a long time ago—and—and once last night. And on both occasions you had just tried to tell me, indirectly at least, that you cared, hadn't you?"
"Indirectly?" he murmured. "Was I as obscure as that?" And then, whimsically: "Won't you call that explanation enough, and let me tell it to you again—so you can't misunderstand?"
"I've asked you to forgive me the first offense," she hurriedly denied his appeal. "And the second—Mr. O'Mara, last night Miriam said something to me, something that she wouldn't have said if she hadn't been half mad with fear. It was unkind, unfair, but it made me wonder if, perhaps, you might not be thinking the same thing, too. Years ago you told me I didn't think you good enough to—to be my knight. My outburst was only childish temper that day, but did you think last night that I still underrated you?"
Steve finally shook his head when she persisted in waiting for his answer.
"You just have to finish now," he warned her, however. "It was your own bargain. I'm not going to tell you one single bit of what I think of you until it comes my turn!"
She tried to laugh at his stubbornness, but she had trouble with this explanation, which grew more vexingly intricate and involved the further she went.
"Then we'll say you didn't," she continued. "I told you last night, less kindly than I might have, that I was engaged to Mr. Wickersham. And I've just confessed, too, that I didn't know a girl could care for any man as unutterably, as blindly and pridelessly, as Miriam cares for the man Garry is. That is the truth. For quite a long, long time it has been understood that I was to marry Mr. Wickersham. I have always admired him—found him above petty things. But, Mr. O'Mara, I have always been sure, for just as long a time, that the ability to care for anyone the—the way I think you believed last night I might care for you, was left out of me. And so it wasn't you who awoke my contempt, even though I did turn it against you. It was I, myself. It was I, and not you, who was not 'good enough'! For even if I am the kind of a girl who can't love anybody, very much, except, perhaps, herself, I should at least play fair. Isn't—isn't that so?"
Minute after minute passed while she sat plaiting the cloth tight-stretched over one knee. Lips softly aquiver, she waited, earnest, eager that he understand from her explanation that which she did not yet understand at all herself. Again she wished that he would turn; she wanted greatly to see whatever there might be behind his heavy silence.
"Isn't it?" she faltered timidly.
And yet, when his head did come around she found she couldn't face him.
"Is it my turn now?" he asked.
Her answer was barely audible.
"If—if you have to—have it. But I've told you how useless it is."
"Would you mind looking at me, just a minute?" said Steve.
The brown head drooped even lower over the restless fingers. It shook, ever so faintly.
"I'd rather not. . . . I'm listening!"
His laugh lilted recklessly in sheer joy at her refusal.
"Then I'll have to tell you," he stated, "that I'm smiling in spite of the hopelessness. I'm smiling, even though my throat is aching and my lips pretty dry.
"You've just finished trying to argue my man's case from your woman's point of view—one of the hardest, least satisfactory things that could be attempted, no doubt. And if it were possible, I know I'd be loving you right now even more than I did before, just because you've been so entirely unsuccessful at it. Maybe I could straighten out a point or two that must have been not quite clear to you; maybe—but I don't want to argue back at you now.
"You say my telling you all I must tell you can't help my case a little bit. All right—we'll let it stand like that, for the moment. And you say you are going to marry Mr. Wickersham. All right again—but better prophets than either of us have made mistakes before now! If he hadn't forced on me one condition which I would have liked to be different, I'd rather have had to mention no other man at all. This isn't the way I'd have chosen to tell you how much I care. I'd rather have told you, a little at a time, but there isn't time for that now. So maybe it'll sound crude to you. I've not rehearsed it with any other woman, you see. And if it does sound that way it won't help me much, either, will it? But you're going to believe what I say!
"You started back a dozen years or so, in order to make your explanation clear. I'm starting there myself, so I'll be sure you understand. You've been grieving because you hurt me—hurt me twice. Will you stop now, if I tell you that I wouldn't exchange those two—shall we call them wounds—for all the kindnesses of all the other women in the world? I did believe that you didn't think me good enough, that first time. That was why I was cut deeper than you'll ever know, because I knew it was only the truth. I admitted it—remember? I admitted it when I said I was coming back. Well, I'm back now—and I'm still not good enough, and not because I haven't tried to be, either. I'm just not admitting any man alive could be that. But I'm telling you, too, in the same breath, that the man who takes you will have to prove he's a whole lot better—before I stand aside!"
For the first time since he had begun the girl moved. Her head leaped back; she half lifted one hand in protest, but the very gladness in his face silenced her.
"My turn," he reminded her quizzically. "You made the bargain, you know. You've just finished a rather involved bit of reasoning concerning the way other women love, a lot of which I'll have to confess I didn't attend as closely as I should have. Perhaps that's because no man's method of caring has ever interested me a great deal, except my own.
"I loved you when you were a little bit of a girl—because I loved you! And I love you that way now. Your face was the first woman face I ever looked on—and—really—saw. And since that first morning it's been with me—been with me a lot of times when I didn't have anything else to look up to. I've been less hungry, for thought of you; less thirsty, when the road got pretty long at times. I—I worshiped you, do you hear? Why, I've prayed to you, dumbly, wordlessly, out of black bitterness, when it seemed that any other divinity must be too busy to give any heed to—to the ragged little tad I was. Now do you think I haven't known what it was, long before this, to go on when there wasn't any hope?"
He waited. Her breath came in a long and quivering gasp. And yet he did not realize that she was crying.
"I—I don't think that I want to—listen any more," she faltered.
His face went white at that—and then he was smiling again.
"I told you I'd have chosen to tell you differently," the drawling gentleness was unaltered, "but I'll have to finish this way now. There may not be many chances for me to speak, for I've come back to you almost too late. And I don't want to hurt you; why, I'm going to keep the laughter in your eyes and heart as long as you live. For I thought it would be a woman I'd find when I came back, and I've found you still all girl—all save in those moments when you've seemed half boy to me. And that is strange, too, isn't it—strange that I never knew how much I wanted you to be like that, until you taught me the wonder of it yourself? My—eyes are stinging. I don't talk quite plainly. My throat is too tight for easy speech. For it's just the old wonder of you, after all—just the same—reverence, isn't it? I'll never let you grow up now. You'll have to stay girl—Boy—all the rest of your life! I've learned to be fairly sure of myself, but I'm not asking to be sure of you yet. I'd never want to be too sure of you unless all the rest of my whole world had come tumbling down. And then—then I'd need to know always that I could stake my soul on your keeping faith. I'd want to know that I could reach out and find your hand searching for mine in the dark. Your face was the first, girl—it's been the only one. It'll be the last thing I'll see, the last moment there is sight in my eyes!"
His slow, infinitely gentle voice stopped. He sat head up, before her. And then her choking sob answered him through that blind silence. He was on his feet then; he started forward, and remembered again. And as if that slim-limbed, huddled little figure had been a boy indeed, he dropped one arm reassuringly over her bowed shoulders.
"Pity, Barbara?" he asked quietly. "Are you crying from pity? Because if it's that—it—it beats me!"
She shook her head vehemently.
"I'm not crying because of anything," she sniffed. "I'm just crying—that' all!"
One hand went searching through pocket after pocket; one elbow came up to shield her eyes. She slid from the tree-trunk and swayed unsteadily, and groped out and found his arm. And it was the boy he had just tried to comfort who curled both hands tightly around his flannel sleeve and hid a wet face against his shoulder.
"I—I'm sorry. I'm so terribly, terribly sorry. I shouldn't have let you start to tell me—I knew it all along. But I'm not pitying—big Stephen O'Mara; it—it was just little Steve who made me cry, I think." Again that long, sobbing breath. "Will you—will you—I can't find my handkerchief," she gasped.
Long after they had remounted and turned their horses toward the south Barbara rode with head bowed, slim shoulders turned toward the man beside her, a shield for her averted face. From time to time she dabbled furtively at her eyes with the big, crisp square of linen with which Steve had answered the wailed announcement of the loss of her own handkerchief. Once or twice she caught her breath, unsteadily. And yet in spite of the fact that the actual desire was furthest of all things from her heart at that instant, when she did finally grow curious at his long silence and turn to steal a sidelong glance at him, the utter gloom upon Steve's face awoke within her an irresistible impulse to mirth.
It was partly hysterical, partly the sudden realization that he was not the only one who had, that morning, found much in his companion which was insistently boyish. For until then she had not glimpsed this side of that grown-up spirit which, in the boy, had evinced more than once a confidence in self so serenely unshakable that it had bordered on doggedness at times.
In those days it had always irritated her, and set her small fists to clenching in a childish antagonism. More than once she had answered it with superior little, child-woman smiles which had sent him marching, white of face and lip, back through the hedge gap, never realizing herself that her own pique sprang from the belief that his promises of conquest dealt only with material things—splendidly visioned, most vaguely detailed conquests which set his eyes afire but seemed to hold no place for the feminine of her. She had never understood that he, with quite masculine bindness [Transcriber's note: blindness?], had taken for granted her comprehension that each and every conquest was to be solely a glorification of her, any more than she understood now why his black discouragement awakened in her a sudden warmth as different from her old perversity as the pulse in her throat was painful. And yet she couldn't stifle that impulse. She giggled aloud. And when he turned—when he wheeled and encountered her shining eyes, still wet and brimming above the screen of his own handkerchief, she sensed immediately that he was flushing as little, too-sensitive Steve had flushed years before, when she had laughed at him less kindly.
The girl was not conscious of it; she had no actual realization yet of how very deeply her unwilling readjustment of fundamental values had, in the last twenty-four hours, undermined her hitherto unquestioning acceptance of those inbred standards which, to all her world save Miriam Burrell, were creed and code of conduct. That morning she only knew she was unaccountably glad because there was no malice in her mirth; had she given it thought she would have insisted that, in her heart, there no longer lurked a ghost, ignoble or otherwise, of what had once been a childishly snobbish belief in her inherent superiority. And as suddenly as she had giggled she now laughed aloud at the expression she had surprised there on his face. Again, for an instant, the very spontaneity of her swift changing mood gave the situation into her hands.
"Please," she begged him mockingly, "please, I did have to laugh, a little. I had to! It just occurred to me, all in a breath, that perhaps there is another of us who—who hasn't entirely grown up. You looked so morbidly disheartened. And I know it won't sound logical, but all this time during which I supposed you were smiling upon my—my absurd tears with that benign surety of yours, it hurt—hurt like everything—just knowing that it was all so hopeless for you. But now that I have seen that you do understand, do we have to be so gloomy any longer? Are we going to be so tragic, every time we meet? They tell me it is an admission of unformed, unbalanced youth, Mr. O'Mara. And, whether that is so or not, I do know that it is a great strain upon my complexion."
Momentarily her effrontery had given the situation into her hands—but only momentarily. For even while she was speaking the corners of Steve's eyelids began to crinkle; before she had finished mocking at him in a voice that still caught unsteadily in her throat, it was her up-turned face which had grown pink under his gravely amused scrutiny.
"Was it as bad as that?" he asked. "I don't know that I mind the 'benign' part so very much, but as for my 'surety'—well, now I must set you right. I have seen men holding four aces sit with faces so sad and hopeless that they might have earned their fortunes as professional mourners, could their expressions have been rendered permanent. I've seen men with straight flushes bow their heads in sorrow over the cards they held. And I think the one beatific visage it has been my good luck to behold belonged to Fat Joe, one night when the rest of the table had raised his very feet out from under him. He sat and beamed; he radiated good cheer—now and then he chuckled with positively insulting self-confidence, while he was pushing forward all the chips he owned . . . and he had two deuces and four spades to back it up!
"You'll find that most men play that way—most men, I mean, who play for big stakes and play to win. And so—but I've told you already that I'm going to put all my cards on the table, with you. You're going to know, always, the hand I hold. Why, I told you I wasn't sure, even a little bit. I've been smiling just to make it easy for you to understand that I know how to lose, if it has to come to that. And do you suppose I'd have let you weep into my handkerchief, if I'd been half way certain, even? Do you? Because I wouldn't. I have a pair of arms and two shoulders that have been reserved for that purpose—reserved, oh, for years and years."
Barbara had lifted the handkerchief again. The explanation which Steve had begun in half-assumed soberness ended in drawling, unmistakable gravity.
"Perhaps it wasn't a particularly good parallel to use," he went on, even more slowly, when she failed to answer. "I only wanted to make you see—to have you know——"
Her brown head flashed up then, radiantly eloquent of entire understanding.
"It was a very good parallel," she defended spiritedly. "I liked it immensely. I was thinking that some day when I get involved with Miriam in a particularly erudite discussion, I'd employ it myself. But just now the one point which interests me most is this. Did—did Fat Joe win?"
His single quick word that checked Ragtime brought her roan mount also to a standstill. Lightly Steve swung out and took both her gloved hands in a grip that made her draw back a little.
"If you weren't the girl to whom I'd just told my love," he stated, "I'd be telling you, right now, that I like you best of all the men I know!" He sat and looked at her. "And since I don't remember clearly whether I've said it already this morning, I'll chance repeating it. You're the one prettiest thing in all this world—and it's not an unhandsome world this morning, either."
For a moment longer her mood lasted while she surveyed him with dark-eyed audacity, head poised on one side in that attitude of wholly happy intimacy with which he had seen her many times greet Caleb Hunter.
"For a man who claims to be strictly an amateur," she murmured, "I can only reply—you do extremely well, sir!"
And then, as if her words had rung too cheaply flippant in her own ears, she took both hands impetuously from his. She started her horse abruptly. And it was yards before he overtook her, rods before she dropped back to a walk. Her face had become wistful in its earnestness.
"That was pretty, and sincere, and—and like you," she mused. "I wonder why my answer sounded not quite so innately fine? Do you suppose it was because I've already become accustomed to meeting flippancy with flippancy? For if that isn't the reason then how would you explain my—my persistent tendency toward frivolity with you? Because it exists, you know. Truly it does! If I yielded to the impulse that is always with me, I—I'd coquette with you, disgracefully. Doesn't that—even surprise you? Now you are laughing at me . . . why, you weren't listening at all!"
His shamefacedness was an admission of guilt, but he shook his head in contradiction.
"Not at you," he corrected her. "I wasn't laughing very heartily, or very steadily, was I? And I'm trying to listen; I am trying to pay attention to everything you say. It just isn't an easy thing to do, that's all, when—when I'm looking at you, too. But I promised you that you were always going to be sure of me. Couldn't that be reason enough; can't we just say you'd sensed it, yourself, even without my telling you so?"
She bobbed her head, most anxious for his gravity now that she was not sure whether it was real or not.
"I knew that must be it," she argued seriously. "I thought it must be, anyway. I just feel safe with you. And yet I don't want you ever to believe, either, that I am deliberately playing. It's just—oh, in my heart I know that you haven't any more than those two deuces, and—and the deal is mine. Do you understand what I'm trying to say? They always say it in—in books, Mr. O'Mara. They always agree to be the 'best of friends,' and it reads so funny and flat. But that is exactly what I am trying to put into words. It couldn't be anything more, ever, and yet I want this friendship which is different from everything I've ever known before. I like you very, very much. Listen, and I'll make a confession, too! I used to watch and hope you'd come back, after I'd sent you home, heart-sick, years ago. Do you suppose we might say the—the 'best of friends' in real life, too, and not sound instantly absurd?"
"We might try it out," he suggested.
Then she was positive that his face was too stiffly sober, but she ignored it—ignored, too, the tinge of whimsicality in his voice.
"If I weren't so sorry for you I might not be so sure; but I am sorry. If you weren't so dismayingly cheerful about it, I wouldn't feel so badly. But I've begun to understand how very long you have been playing your cards and smiling over them, no matter what might be dealt you. And that is some improvement over the girl I've been, isn't it? For I've never had to struggle very hard for anything I've wanted. I want to be friends, but I'm not silly enough to think you won't tell me again that you—care. I want to be friends, but not at the price of your heart-ache and disappointment, and—why, I wonder, do I get all tangled up when I try to explain myself to you? It's just this: I'm not going to be unkind to little Steve any more, Mr. O'Mara, or—or big Steve, either. But I—I want to see you sometimes, too, and—and I just won't let myself cry any more this morning!"
Her voice had grown very small toward the end. It trailed off into a stifled but unmistakable sniff. And a moment later, when she ceased fumbling with the reins and glanced with resolute brightness up at him, the film of hot tears in his eyes brought her hands to her throat. But even then in the face of that light which she had never before glimpsed in any man's eyes for her, she was conscious of his use of her name—vaguely conscious of how different it sounded on his lips.
"Barbara," Steve faltered, "Barbara, you blessed child, you!" And there, dumbly, he shook his head over his stumbling utterance and tried to laugh to cover it. "Sorry? Sorry for me? Why, God bless you, girl, you refuse me whenever you want to—whenever you have to! I'm not asking you to help. And don't you suppose after last night I know how near to losing out I am? I understand. Why, you're going to get quite a few refusals ahead of me, no doubt, before—before I catch up with you! But don't you waste one bit of worry on me.
"It would be your telling me that you did care, and then telling me that you didn't, that would about break me. I have to keep on asking you; I have to keep on trying, but you can tell me 'no chance' whenever, in your heart, you believe it to be the truth, and I'll take it smiling. Just don't let it become mechanical, that's all I ask, will you? And—and if some day after I've gone, you suddenly begin to wish, even the tiniest bit, that you hadn't made the last refusal quite—quite so final, you needn't let that worry you, either. Because I'll be back! You can know that I'll come back, next day—next month—next year—thirty miles or three hundred—oh, just to see if my chances haven't improved any! That does make you smile, doesn't it? I reckon experienced match-makers would tell me that that isn't the way for me to talk if I'm going to win out. But it's the way I like best. I want you to know that there is one person you can be sure of, all the days of your life. I began a dozen years ago—I've only started loving the whiteness of you."
She rode with wide eyes fastened upon his now wholly smiling face; rode with lips parted, all else submerged in that wonder which quickened her breath. Once she leaned toward him as if to speak, and then shook her head at the inadequacy of the words. They topped the last rise in the dusty, winding road and raised the river basin and the town itself in that long period of silence. There, once more, she checked the roan mare.
"If women could care like that," she told him quietly. "If I believed that I could ever——" She shook her head with a sad little smile. "Since you have come home you've made me feel very insignificant and petty at times. You've made me wish I might have been as—as wonderful as you say I am to you. But I know, you see." She lifted one slim arm toward the newer Morrison stretched out along the river front. "Do you remember the first day you saw the village it used to be, that day when you first came down river?"
Steve knew what she was going to say. She read amused anticipation in his eyes and grew self-conscious at it.
"I thought yours was a perfectly good parallel," she asserted stoutly. "And you'll have to admit that you did believe it was wonderful then. Uncle Cal has told me how breathlessly you called it the 'city.' But is it as wonderful, now? Hasn't familiarity with real bigness dimmed its wonder a little?"
For the first time that day his attitude was frankly challenging.
"Maybe," he agreed, "maybe! And maybe I like it better than ever, for the others I've seen!" He frowned and shook his head. "I'm quite likely to stick to first conclusions," he finished, "and your inference is basically wrong. I do not need to look at other women to make me surer of the wonder of you. A man doesn't have to live in a desert all his life to know what thirst is, you know. And it's not bad—not bad as cities go!"
As they had begun the morning they now finished it, on a plane of thorough comradeship which years and years alone cannot achieve.
"Not bad," she echoed throatily. "Not bad, at all! It's marvelous too, how towns and people and—and things in general can improve, once they awake to their own importance in the scheme of things, isn't it?"
Quite on a mutual impulse they clasped hands and laughed into each other's eyes; quite unnecessarily it may have appeared to the small group on the veranda of the stucco and timber place halfway down the slope between them and town. And there on the crest of the hill, suddenly conscious of those eyes, the girl drew back as swiftly as she had swung toward him.
"What in the world will they think!" she breathed. "I've been gone since daybreak, without saying a word that I was going. And it must be noon by now. Come—no, don't hurry! It's too late to hurry now!"
Her chin came up; the line of her lips lost its soft fullness. It was his hot face which made her aware of how surely her imperiously quick orders had stung him. Then she was back, knee to knee, at his side.
"That wasn't fair," she said. "That was most unfair, to me. You didn't think, did you, that I——"
His interruption surprised her.
"If I shouldn't inquire," he asked, "will you please tell me so, and forget I asked the question? May I know when you—you and Mr. Wickersham are to be——"
Barbara's face went slowly crimson, flushed to the nape of her neck.
"It's not a certainty yet, the date," she answered kindly. "Just late in the spring, I think."
He nodded. Again she knew how wholly unreadable his eyes could be.
"Late in the spring," he repeated, so softly that he might have been talking to himself. "Late in the spring I'll have two time limits run out on me."
Wickersham himself was coming across the lawn to meet them when they drew rein at the head of the driveway. With a deliberation so proprietary that it set Barbara suddenly to gnawing her lip, he unbent his long legs and straightened from his place on the top step of the veranda; and even though the wicker chairs behind him were filled he stood forth quite alone, extremely tall and straight, perfectly poised and entirely immaculate. And without one outward sign of animosity to give it ground, that other man sitting loose-thighed upon Ragtime's back knew that he was wondering where she had been—why she had chosen to go alone. Without exhibiting a trace of it upon his long face, Wickersham still radiated a swift and chilling jealousy which, now that he saw it again, Stephen O'Mara knew had never been entirely absent from the face of the Archibald Wickersham he had known many years before. Just as Miriam Burrell, with a studied deliberation that matched that of the tall figure ahead of her, in turn detached herself from the throng and came down the steps, Barbara's eyes raised to Steve's. She did not stop to reason it; she couldn't have made it sound reasonable had she tried, but she did not want those two to meet again just then—those two whose boyhood quarrel had centered about herself.
"Won't you keep Ragtime until you come back to Uncle Cal's to-night?" she asked. "I've kept you loitering for hours and hours on the way. But it will save you a little time."
And this time Steve understood. He nodded in reply.
"Not a chance?" he asked her quietly. "Not a chance?"
She was wheeling the roan.
"Not a chance," she whispered. "Not a chance in the world! But we—Mr. Elliott promised to show us the works this afternoon," she added in the next breath. "Can you—do you suppose you can come?"
And then, as she turned the mare and went skimming up the drive toward the stable, she wondered why he laughed.
In his turn Steve set Ragtime's head toward the town in the valley. And therefore he did not see that Archibald Wickersham was left standing alone a moment in the middle of the lawn. But Miriam Burrell saw and understood the black rage that shadowed his face. Long before then she had penetrated to the layer of vanity beneath his air of boredom. More than once she had used that knowledge maliciously, to stir him. And she knew how unending could be his hatred for anyone who had ever made him appear ridiculous.
I NEVER DID LIKE TO BE BEATEN
Stephen O'Mara found Hardwick Elliott lunching alone in the East Coast Company's main Morrison office, a big unpainted shack that stood half lost in a maze of high-piled ties, midway between the saw-mills at the river edge and the first snarled network of switches converging on one reddish streak of steel that lanced into the north. With moodily indifferent interest Elliott scarcely more than glanced up at the horseman's approach across the open plot of raw earth, hard-packed to a cement-like surface by the endless passage and repassage of countless hob-nailed, heavy-booted feet, but with that first glance his forehead began to smooth a little. His face had lost something of its hint of gauntness, even before his chief engineer had swung down from the saddle. Elliott had been exhibiting scant appetite for the cold food half buried in the pile of papers on his desk top; and though he smiled his characteristically courteous, mildly abstracted greeting when Steve loomed in the doorway, his attitude was still very patently that of a man who attempts to conceal his own perplexities lest they compound those of another whose perplexities are already more than enough. He rose and held out a finely tapered hand.
"Now, this is fine," he exclaimed. "This is really fine, Mr. O'Mara. Rather odd, too—coincidence and that sort of thing, I mean. Because I was just this instant wondering whether I had better send for you or wait until you just happened down river again."
In many ways the president of the East Coast Company reminded Steve of Caleb Hunter, even though there could be no two things more in contrast than the latter's calm and comfortable bigness and Elliott's thin and wiry and extremely nervous exterior. It was a similarity due entirely to the innate honesty of both men—such honesty as makes of every attempt at dissimulation an assured non-success. And Miss Sarah had never anticipated her brother's clumsiest finesse with greater ease than did Steve sense, that afternoon, the weight of worry behind his employer's first effort at jauntiness. He nodded, hopefully, it seemed.
"Something else gone wrong?" he asked. "Or are you going to tell me that McLean is still having trouble with that curve of his."
Elliott, too, shook his head, but his negative nod was less brisk, less hopeful.
"No," he replied. "No, we've got that laid, or at least practically so. It's not anything so satisfyingly material that I wanted to talk about. I wish it were, because—well, the fact is, now that you are here it appears I may have considerable trouble in making you believe that I'm not merely developing a most womanish case of nerves. Cold feet, I suppose, might not be far from correct, if we put it in the proper gender. No, it's not the work itself. You know the first few miles at this end afford pretty plain sailing. We figured on that: or we wouldn't stand any chance of finishing the job. And we are quite nicely ahead of our schedule, so far. But have you—I was wondering if you, by any chance, have noticed any signs of discontent in your own squad at Thirty Mile?"
Elliott eased himself back into his chair at the finish of the question. Repugnantly he jerked a thumb in silent invitation toward a plate of sandwiches. It indicated most clearly the state of his appetite—that gesture—and Steve could not help but smile a little as he refused.
"No more than the usual disturbances," he answered. "I have more or less trouble holding them—some of them—over the week-ends, of course. But then that's always to be expected. They aren't the sort of men that go to make up the general run of construction squads. One of my main reasons for wanting them was the fact that they were rivermen, hardened to swamping and white-water work and that kind of thing. In a pinch they're good for twenty-four hours a day, over stretches that would take the heart out of most gangs. I don't know of anything that can beat a lumber-jack on a squeeze job, once you get him to realize that he's up against long odds. It's this ten-hour-a-day thing and too much ready money every pay-day; it's a town too temptingly close that makes them a—a trifle temperamental, Mr. Elliott. Is that what you mean?"
Elliott pondered for a moment.
"That entirely duplicates what McLean said just a day or so ago." On any other lips Elliott's deliberate neatness of phrase might have sounded solemnly funny. "Thoroughly logical, of course,—thoroughly possible. And yet, somehow it doesn't fit the case. We've had the usual Monday morning vacancies, right along, as you know; but the delinquents always turned up before the five o'clock whistle blew, or at least reported Tuesday morning. But this is the end of the week and we're short right this minute very close to thirty men. They aren't coming back, Mr. O'Mara; on the contrary, they continue to dribble away, a few every day. And though they appear to do nothing but talk their time away in the saloons in the lower end of the town, they seem to have just as much money to spend, as they did when they were getting their time checks from us."
Steve leaned over and with nice deliberation selected a sandwich.
"What sort of talking?" he wanted to know, suddenly.
Again Elliott smiled in self-deprecation.
"That's just it," he exclaimed. "Their talk leads nowhere. I went down and attempted to find out what their grievance might be, but they close up like clams whenever I come within earshot. They stare at the ceiling, rub their chins, and laugh when there's nothing to laugh at. This morning, however, I finally convinced McLean that something was radically wrong. So he took one of them who had just decided to quit and pinned him up against the embankment—but you know McLean and his methods! He shoved his jaw up within an inch of the other's nose and invited him to talk, and—well, he found out enough to make him begin to worry, too. Somebody's been talking to them, Mr. O'Mara; somebody has put the fool notion into their heads that this strip of railroad will mean the end of all lumber operations in this country—the old-time river drives, of course. And some of them are beginning to believe—whoever was responsible for that statement.
"You know and I know how absurd it is. We know that this road will mean work for every riverman in this section, as often as he wants to work. But it isn't going to help us any if they can't see it that way. It isn't going to replace the men who quit. I've been deliberating one point. Don't you suppose we might import a regular squad of construction men now, before it's too late?"
"It's too late now," Steve told him, his words none the less final for all that they were absently quiet. "It was too late the day we began operations. And yesterday at this time I wouldn't have given much worry to this particular brand of trouble. They're an odd lot; they're the hardest working, hardest living crowd of big men that ever failed entirely to grow up." Steve stopped and looked down at the sandwich untouched in his hand, much as though he were surprised to find it there. "But since yesterday—since yesterday—who, did you say, was responsible for that statement, as you call it?"
"I didn't say." Elliott brushed away a persistent bluebottle fly, a lonesome survivor which the unseasonably warm day had reawakened. The insect's droning wings as it persisted again and again back to the sandwich plate made the only sound in that big, bare room. "And if I—if I had to guess——" The hand passed across his eyes now. "O'Mara, do you know how deeply Mr. Ainnesley and myself are involved in this prospect?"
After a long search the engineer of the East Coast Company had finally located his pipe.
"I don't believe I have ever given it much actual thought," he said. "I never viewed it as any of my affair. But I haven't forgotten the last time we talked the plans over, that you couldn't go into it to lose."
Punctiliously Elliott proffered a lighted match for the other's filled pipe; he lighted a long and thin and very black cigar for himself. Steve noted then for the first time that the man's hand was shaking a little.