It was instant-quick, and yet little quicker than the expression that sped over Garry's features. He turned and faced the thicket from which the report had come; he lifted his chin and opened his arms and laughed aloud. The second time that day Steve reached out and jerked him viciously from his feet. This time the bullet missed the sapling. They felt the air shock of its passage.
There was nothing deliberate nor premeditated in the outburst which Steve loosed upon the man who had gone to his knees beneath the grip of his hands.
"You fool!" he grated. "You crazy-brained madman!"
Garry rose and made as if to dust his knees.
"Poor work," he criticised, easily. "Too hurried—the first shot. There should have been no excuse for a second."
With angry roughness Steve thrust him back into the deeper shadow.
"Wait here!" he commanded.
But Garry was only a step behind him when, a moment later, the former leaned over the spot where that invisible marksman had stood. There were deep imprints in the forest mold—an empty shell upon the leaves. And by that time Steve had regained his grave composure.
"Some idiot of a hunter," he ventured quietly, when he had straightened from a glance at those marks. "One of those enthusiasts who shoot in haste at any rustle in the brush, and investigate at leisure."
Momentarily the intimacy which had existed in other days between them was restored. Garry's answer held no more of antagonism than had Steve's calm comment. He tried to follow the tracks that led into the deeper timber. It was too dark to follow far.
"This is a hunter in a hurry, then," he remarked. "Too much of a hurry, even, to investigate."
"Hungry, and late for supper," suggested Steve. "And we'll be late, ourselves, unless we travel along."
He faced about and started straight across the clearing, and he maintained the lead in spite of Garry's effort to supplant him. Before they reached the door of the cabin reserve that amounted to actual coolness once more cloaked them both. Only once did either of them offer to speak.
"You might do well to vary your costume a little," Garry observed impersonally, "if your nimrod friend who hunts at dusk is going to persist in mistaking you for a deer."
He drank hard that night from the bottle which Fat Joe, in obedience to Steve's command, had left standing upon the shoulder-high shelf—drank first in a self-conscious fashion with a mumbled excuse to Joe that the rainfall had chilled him; then more and more openly, until he forgot that he had ever felt the need of an excuse. Not one of the three men had made a move to go to bed, and before midnight came around Garry's black fit of absorbtion had given way to another mood. Blithely he chafed Fat Joe one minute, blind to that one's sullen reception of his jocularity; the next moment he turned eyes that had long before lost their enmity in a glassier light of goodwill upon Steve, working over a drawing-board at the other end of the table, impatient yet elaborately approving of his industry. And when Steve finally laid aside his work, signifying with a sigh that he had finished, Garry rose and lifted a half-emptied glass and made him a rollicking toast.
"Here's to young Virtue's triumph, Steve," he chanted, "and damnation to the opposition! I may be leaving you—I'll be on my way back to town to-morrow at this time—but I'm leaving my moral support behind me."
Steve's reception of that flourish was in no way like what Fat Joe had expected. He smiled cordially—a little absently.
"Thanks, Garry," he said. "And I guess I'll be needing all the support I can find, both moral and otherwise, before spring comes. So you're not figuring on stopping off at Morrison? Planning on going straight through, eh?"
Garry made a gesture which was meant to embrace the whole chain of hills outside.
"Absolutely!" he emphasized. "This country is all right for those who were born to it—purple hills and purling brooks and silence brooding over all!—but it's too intense for your effete comrade. Too quiet—too easy to think! I'm going away from here just as fast as steam will haul me."
The other man stretched his arms and swung one foot negligently over the chair arm. His unqualified agreement brought sudden alarm to Joe's eyes.
"I suppose you're right," he drawled. "It does get on any man's nerves. Right this minute I'm as tired of it as I ever dare let myself get. I've sloughed around in the mud enough for one session."
Garry frowned, perplexed. His fast numbing brain refused to reconstruct clearly, and yet dimly he knew that this sentiment was not the one which he had heard a few hours before from Steve's lips.
"Too true," he was content to reply sadly. "Too true!"
"We've both earned a vacation." Steve's gentle smile never left his lips. "To-day I couldn't help but think that it was a shame to miss such perfect hunting weather as this. I wonder if I couldn't persuade you to postpone your going for just a day or two longer. I can show you some deer, Garry."
The frown upon the latter's forehead deepened with his effort at recollection. Then he brightened with happy satisfaction.
"Deer!" he chuckled, addressing himself to Joe. "Hunter took me for a deer, thinking I was Steve." He blinked, for the statement did not entirely please him. "Doesn't sound logical," he pondered, "but it's so. Fired twice and missed both shots. Poor work—very poor work indeed!"
Joe squared around, his perplexed scrutiny an accusation now. Steve had neglected to apprise him of that incident which had happened on the way home, and Joe had not heard the rifle reports. But O'Mara clung to the subject which he had introduced.
"That's the trouble with hunting right here in the front yard," he admitted. "There are too many gunners anxious to hear their rifles go off. We might swing over toward the west branch, though. As long as this rain holds on the leaves will be quiet as a carpet. You've never seen my own private shooting box, either, have you Garry?"
The questioned one tried hard to pay attention, but the attempt was no more than an indifferent success, for he was still grumbling to himself over that unknown marksman's lack of skill.
"Never knew you had one," he answered.
"My inheritance," laughed Steve. From his manner he might have been talking to a sober man. "And also the haunt of my boyhood days. It's the shack, you know, where I spent a good many years with Old Tom. It lies a half dozen miles through the woods from here. I've made it weather-tight and dry. I spend a day or so up there whenever I have a chance to get away. We're sure of a shot if we still-hunt over in that direction—sure of a tight roof and good beds, too. How does it appeal to you?"
Garry spilled over his glass and had to fill it again, with many apologies for his clumsiness, so ardent was his acceptance of the invitation. He rose and insisted upon shaking hands.
"A personally conducted tour," he stammered gayly.
"A pilgrimage to the nest from which young genius first spread its wings, personally conducted by my friend, Mr. O'Mara." But his moods were growing more and more uncertain and changeable, now. He bent a baleful glance upon Fat Joe. "Is this—person going to accompany us," offensively he wanted to know.
Steve shook his head.
"Joe'll have to stay here and hold things down until we return," he explained.
Garry resumed his seat.
"Then I'll go," he stated. The baleful light was slow in leaving his eyes. And, after a rambling, muttered something to himself: "Too officious . . . wouldn't let me have but one drink every three hours . . . better we left him alone. He might shoot somebody, too—looks as though he might shoot and investigate at leisure."
With that he turned once more to thoughts of him who, firing from ambush, had left a trail of hob-nails to voice mutely the haste of his retreat. It had a fascination for him; his mind went back to it automatically, the only idea apparently upon which he found it possible to center his faculties. Now and then he referred to it aloud, in jumbled and meaningless ejaculations. Both men knew that he did not know what he was saying, and yet his reference to Fat Joe had left a hint of pain in the latter's eyes. It was still there when Joe arose, an hour later, and jerked his head toward Garry's quarters.
"If you need me, sing out," he said. "There's whiskey locked in the medicine chest—and I'll be sleeping light."
The words meant nothing to Garry, but he noted Joe's departure. Steve saw that his eyes were fixed, his lips crusted with fever, when he too came to his feet in a supreme effort, and steadied himself by the back of his chair.
"I've been most thoughtless, Steve," he apologized charmingly. It was the spirit of the old Garry talking through the flesh of the Garry he had become. "I've been unpardonably selfish. You must be tired; you have worked hard to-day."
In turn he made as if to cross to the door. Steve drew him back.
"Joe's taken your bed," he explained. "He's been an hour asleep by now. We'll be getting away at daybreak, and he always did hate to be waked an instant before his hour, so you'll have to occupy his bunk."
It took Garry a minute or two to assimilate that.
"Surely," he agreed. "Daybreak." Then, drearily, with no knowledge of what he was saying: "I wish I could go to sleep—I wish it was daybreak, now!"
Yet he was almost sober again when Steve shook him awake at four the next morning, his first inquiry concerning the state of the weather proving that he recalled their plans of the night before. But his politeness had given way to a pallid stubbornness that would not budge an inch until he had had a drink and filled a pair of flasks with all that the fresh bottle from the medicine chest contained. He refused breakfast with sickened finality; declined even the coffee which Steve tried to press upon him. When the latter handed him Joe's rifle and a handful of extra shells, however, his eagerness to be away showed in his eyes.
Steve did not like that gleam any more than he understood it, and he did not understand it at all. It went around him—through him—much as though Garry was peering cunningly at a far-off, bodiless something which the other man could not see. And throughout the whole morning Steve was conscious of it whenever they met after skirting a swamp, or slipped noiselessly over a hardwood knoll, to rejoin each other. The day was half gone before Steve realized that it was the telltale sign of a brain no longer sober, even though Garry's body continued to maintain an incredible steadiness.
Long after it seemed that eyes such as his had become must needs be sightless the latter went on picking his way carefully over rough bits of going; when he had reached a condition where he no longer heard the word or two which, now and then, Steve addressed to him, he still flattened his body and crouched at the expected nearness of game. It became an uncanny exhibition of mechanics after a while—a sleep-walking sort of thing which wore upon Steve's nerves until he was more than once at the point of taking possession of Joe's repeater. And yet it was Garry who jumped a spike-horn buck, just before nightfall. It was he who fired twice before Steve's rifle reached his shoulder. But they found only blood on the leaves when they hastened forward.
"You hit him!" Steve leaned over to examine those crimson stains. "You must have found him with both shots, judging from the way he's bleeding. He's gone into that cedar swamp; he won't travel far, and I hate to let him crawl in there, wounded like that, to die."
Indecisively he paused, not sure just what to do. In that moment of quiet Garry lifted a flask to his lips and finding it empty let it slip heedlessly to the ground.
"Two shots," he muttered darkly. "Two, where one should have been enough."
That echo of the night before helped the other man to decide.
"This strip of dark timber runs straight west to the river—are you listening, Garry?" he asked. "Straight to the river—it's only a scant mile—and you'll find the cabin on the rise of ground in a clump of balsams, three or four rods to the right. I'm going to take your gun—you look fagged out. You skirt around the edge of the bad going and I'll drive straight through. It may be only a scratch, after all, although it doesn't seem possible, with all this blood. I'll take your gun and, now, are you sure you can make it—sure you won't get turned around? It'll be dark in half an hour, you know."
Garry gave up his rifle without a sign of demur. His eyes were burning with some sort of feverish anticipation, but his answer was clear enough.
"I'll wait for you at the river," he said, and he started forthwith toward the west.
Steve watched him out of sight before he turned to take up, irresolutely, the trail that zig-zagged into the cedar brake. But once he had started he went ahead rapidly, jumping the wounded buck within five minutes and giving him no time to lie down again. And after he had covered a quarter of a mile Steve saw that it was much as he had told Garry it might be; it was a flesh wound that bled profusely and that was all. For the deer, holding to a direct line down the middle of the swamp, continued to travel strongly. Steve had all but reached the river-edge where they were to stop for the night, before he detected a stirring in the bushes ahead of him and his ear caught the crackle of a dry branch.
Instantly he forgot everything save the quarry he was running down; forgot Garry and the strange persistence with which the latter had gone back, after twelve hours, to quote himself word for word. With rifle poised he edged forward a step and halted; he stooped and laid Garry's gun at the foot of a tree and went on again. Once he made out a movement behind a nearer tangle and saw the branches shake before a heavy body that was forcing slowly through them. His own rifle came up; his finger was on the trigger when he thought better of it. Old Tom, more than a half-score of years before, had switched him well, not so very far from that very spot, because he had not made certain first of the target at which he was firing.
There was an open patch to the left. If the buck held to that quarter he would have to cross that clear. Rock-steady the muzzle came down and covered the first indistinct brown bulk which entered the notch of the sights. And then, with an oath, Steve let the gun slip to the ground at his feet and stood shaking, checks gone white. Garret Devereau, wearing an old tan canvas coat which he had unearthed in the cabin peered slyly around a bush which he had been stirring gently with one hand.
"Go ahead 'n' shoot," he ordered aggrievedly. "Hunter'sh alwaysh shoot at rush'le in the dark. Good joke on hunter'sh—good joke on my good frien', Misther O'Mara! Think'sh's got deer until he inves'gates at leisure. Best joke of all'sh on myself."
The muscles which all day had been a marvel of firmness beneath him gave way altogether. Without a sound he pitched forward upon his face. A second later Steve reached his side, but the horror had not faded from his own eyes after he had picked that prostrate figure up and carried it into the clay-clinked shack. His memory played him an odd trick during that moment. A vivid picture came back to him of the grave-faced boy he had been, struggling to steady Old Tom's helpless feet up that same rise.
Garry was limp and blue and pulseless when Steve stretched him out, inside. The second flask stood there where Garry had left it, upon a table, and while he was loosening the latter's clothing Steve shook it, experimentally, and found it empty. He swung it aloft and drove it through a window. The crash of shivered glass made the other stir. He opened his eyes and stared vacantly up into his friend's face.
"Steve," he moaned. "Steve, I'm cold!"
And that was the burden of the complaints which he lifted, time and again, throughout the first part of the night. Even after Steve had wrapped him in everything which the bare room afforded he still continued to whimper like a sick boy. But his body held strong. Just as, all day, it had been his brain which had shown the effects of the alcohol which he had consumed, so now, all night, it was his brain which suffered most. Again and again he called aloud a woman's name, in a voice which Stephen O'Mara had never before heard from his lips. In inconceivable tenderness he whispered it—the name of Mary Graves—only to cry aloud, "Steve—Steve," in accents of heartbreak the next.
Long before morning came his pulse was steady—a little jumpy but reassuringly rhythmic. But the sunlight was two hours old upon the floor before the silent watcher saw the white lids flutter and then part with a gaze that was once more sane. Garry's smile had always been mocking; it was shamed and wistful now. The clearness with which he remembered was a miraculous thing.
"You see, Steve," he faltered. "You see now, don't you, that I'm not worth trying to save? Oh, you've tried hard; I knew how hard you were trying! That's why I did—what I did. I'm no good; there's no use, friend of mine. Why don't you let me go?"
Steve groped and found the hand groping for his. He nodded his head, bruskly, to hide his eyes. But his voice was not brusk.
"I almost shot you, Garry," he said, and there was a husky echo of horror in the words. "In another minute I'd have killed you. Right now I don't know just what kept me from firing."
"And I meant you to," Garry murmured almost inaudibly, "I planned that you should—started to plan last night. I—I've been hating you for twelve hours—hating you because you were making me ashamed to do the thing I wanted to do most."
He tried to rise and fell back, slack. But his voice was stronger with sudden, swelling bitterness.
"It wasn't for myself, Steve," he cried. "It wasn't for what I might get out of it, or—or what it might bring me, I used to scoff at whatever others considered big and fine and clean, but I played it straight, just the same. I played it as well as I knew how—straighter than you'd believe. I thought it would make her happier, because I tried that hard. And she . . . Steve, if I had been a woman—a woman like what I thought she was, little and clean and white—I couldn't have let a man like him so much as touch my little finger! And she—by God, she married him!"
The agonized voice broke there—the voice of a boy who had had to learn that it is woman and not women who is fastidious. Garry sat and swallowed, fighting for self-control. His eyes were numb, but Steve's had taken fire, for he knew that the hour for which he had been waiting had come at last.
"You've been trying to help me," Garry found his voice again, "you've been trying to throw me a line. And, for a day or two, I tried to catch it, Steve. But it isn't in me to try that hard, any more. Some men do things for what there is in it—the pecuniary reward, I mean; some men—you for instance—because their self respect won't let them stop, win or lose. But now and then there happens one who keeps on trying only because there is one other person, at least, who may be the gladder for his success. I don't expect you to understand; I know it will sound small and cowardly to you. . . . It's too lonesome living, Steve, when there's no one who cares whether you live or not!"
"That does not fit your case," Steve objected instantly, "when your danger or your safety keeps a woman watching, white-faced with terror through the night, for your return."
Garry propped himself upon one elbow, the better to see the speaker's countenance.
"My safety?" he repeated, blankly. "My return?" And then, wanly grateful: "You are not the sort of man who lies convincingly, Steve."
And then Stephen O'Mara let him have it—all the story which had lain so many days in his heart. There were times when Garry went even paler during the short recital; times when everything else was submerged by the incredulity that flooded his face. But before Steve had finished the last trace of doubt was gone. Before the end came Garry had bowed his head, this time in flushed, self-conscious wonder which transfigured him.
"Miriam Burrell!" he breathed. "Proud, intolerant——"
His head came up. The next instant he voiced the words which Steve most wanted to hear.
"You shouldn't have told me this," said he. "You had no right, unless——"
Steve laughed at him.
"God bless you, boy," he exclaimed. "I asked her if I might. Why, don't you understand that she meant to, herself, if I didn't? You see, she is—far, far braver than you are, Garry."
Garry lifted his hands and hid his face.
So quietly that his exit made no sound Steve slipped to his feet and passed outside. It had stopped raining; the hardwood ridges, touched by frost, were flaming streaks of color against the rainwashed evergreens, when he picked his way down to the river and found a dry stone for a seat. An hour and more he sat there, while his thoughts went back over the trail of the years—the trail which had led him from that cabin to a pair of violet eyes and lips that arched like a boy's.
Steve let his mind turn again, unreservedly, to his own problem that morning; he tried to face, sure-eyed, the road which still stretched ahead. He did not know that Garrett Devereau, the debonaire, the cynical, the world-weary and world-wise, had broken down and was sobbing noiselessly, as men sob, in the room which he had left—shaking with deep and terrible gasps that racked his very soul. But it was already daybreak; it was trail's-end now for Garry. It does make a difference if one knows that someone cares.
Upon their return to Thirty-Mile, two nights later, Joe's attitude of criticism was the first thing which piqued Steve's interest. There was something ludicrous in the former's voice as he sat and anathematized the food which the cook-boy brought to the table, even though he devoured hungrily all that his plate would hold. And because Joe was so obviously primed for a sensation that evening, out of sheer perversity Steve struggled to draw him into a discussion of a topic, which, just as obviously, had no appeal just then.
"What I hope to do," he confided gravely to Garry, "is to finish up at Morrison and make possible the transfer of some of those men up here. We are working only one shift now. With two I figure we could sail along a-fogging. How does that strike you, Joe?"
That was only one of his many attempts, but all of them, save for the inner laughter which they afforded; were totally without result. Joe's answers were monosyllabic—his attention wandering at best. To that particular question he nodded his head, spiritlessly.
"This butter ain't none too fresh," he growled sourly, "and I wonder if that cook-boy thinks we dote on ham every meal? I don't for one. It may be all right, if a man's plumb starving to death, but it don't lend no real elegance to a repast."
That gloomy complaint brought little more than a sparkle to Steve's eyes, but it made Garry lean forward in his place. Throughout the meal while the other two fenced in just such fashion he forgot his own food to listen, delighted anticipation in every feature. And when they had finished supper and pushed back their chairs, he stood grinning a little, watching Joe survey that littered room which served as office and sleeping-quarters for the chief engineer of the East Coast Company. Fat Joe's gaze swung from wall to wall, from littered corner to heaped-up chair. Then he shook his head in despair.
"It looks to me, Steve," he grunted, "as though you ain't never had no real training in tidiness, have you? There don't seem to be no system at all in the way you leave your things around. There's one boot over in that corner; it's got a mate, I know, because I saw you take them off last night. I wouldn't be certain otherwise. And it's the same way with all your things. Just look at this room! A nice place to receive callers in, now ain't it?"
That was the first lead he tendered them, but Steve, rather than gratify him with a direct question, chose to go forward in the dark. He leaned over and followed his usual custom when he wanted to think. He tapped out his pipe.
"But I can always find everything," he defended, "that is, unless you have taken the trouble to put things away. Then it's a toss-up that something or other will never be found, until it turns up of its own accord. It's not so bad, Joe." He, too, swung to survey the room. "Not so bad! Just a little unsettled, that's all. Are we likely to have any callers, do you think, who would object to this layout?"
Joe snorted, but his eyes were mournful. He knew that there was nothing else to do but yield, a part at least.
"We ain't likely to," he murmured. "We're just naturally bound to have 'em. They're comin' in to-morrow, and I ask you again, ain't this a pleasing prospect to greet 'em?"
For all that he seemed to be staring ruefully down the room, he was watching for the surprise that darted across Steve's face. Momentarily the latter had forgotten his assumed air of placidity.
"To-morrow? Who?" And then Steve laughed. "Go ahead and tell us, Joe. I'm beat! I'll admit that I'm panting with curiosity."
Joe pulled up a chair and dropped into it. It appealed to him—this method—whenever he had the time to spare. His pink face was still innocent of guile.
"I don't mind the men-folks," he resumed. "That fat party, I mean, who wears the plaid suits, nor Caleb Hunter, either. Both of them are used to such truck as this. And I reckon it'll tickle the ladies, too. But I can see Honey sticking his nose in the air and sniffin', supercilious like, the first minute he gets his nose in the door. He ain't going to approve at all, at all—not any way you look at it."
Both Steve and Garry ignored the rest of Joe's explanation to gasp that single word in concert.
"Who in the world do you mean by 'Honey'?"
"Who could I mean?" Joe demanded collectedly. "I didn't give him the name, did I? I mean that chap Wickersham who owns the timber north of us. Foreign, ain't he? Sure, I thought so? Well, every time I run across that man's path my heart swells with patriotism. I guess I'm just as glad to be born plain United States."
The first part of that statement was listened to closely enough by both men; the last sentence or two, for all that it was heartfelt and sincere, was lost upon them both. And Steve's mirth was even more hysterical than was that of Garry Devereau.
"Honey!" he panted. "Now isn't that a wonder? Joe, you're too good! You are altogether too good to be wasted on these timbered solitudes. Men pay two dollars a seat, Joe, to hear performers work who are rank amateurs in comparison with you."
The riverman's eyes grew belligerent.
"Funny, is it? So awful funny! Well, perhaps you think I can't read plain print yet, never havin' enjoyed a liberal education. But take a look for yourself."
He pulled up a pile of newspapers which had come in since their absence, sorted out one that was creased open, and handed it to Steve. It was an announcement of Barbara Allison's engagement to the Hon. Archibald Wickersham—that column to which Fat Joe had folded the sheet—a many-days-old announcement, now. But the smile did not even stiffen upon Steve's lips. The picture which accompanied it was a poor one, heavy-shadowed and smeared and lacking in detail, yet Barbara's face was unmistakable. The room became quiet. In that hush Garry realized that Joe's mistaken translation of the title had not been, as Joe had himself suggested, due to lack of knowledge, but to a desire to apprise his employer, delicately, of that which he believed was still news to him. And yet, from the easy way in which he read it, word for word, Garry was positive that all this which the New York daily blazoned forth with its customary mixture of snobbishness and vulgarity was no longer news to Steve. The latter's eyes lifted and dwelt long upon Fat Joe's face.
"So that's where you got it, was it, Joe?" he asked evenly. "You make it 'Honey,' do you? And when do they come in, Joe?"
"To-morrow night. One of the teamsters brought word this afternoon, just before you got back. Honey is going to have a look at his trees and things, the way I understand it. And the rest of them, I take it, want to look us over in our wild state. Where are we going to put them girls?"
Steve's answer was long in coming.
"Miss—Allison?" he wanted to know.
"—and her maid," Joe corrected promptly. "Her maid, Cecile. She's comin', too, and that tall, red-headed one. I don't remember her name?"
As studiously as he had done a moment before, Garry again avoided Steve's eyes.
"Miriam Burrell," the latter supplied the omission. "And that's fine, isn't it? How long are they going to stay, Joe?"
But Joe had finished with trifling.
"Where are we going to put them?" he insisted doggedly.
"Why, we have a couple of shelter tents somewhere in the duffle, haven't we? We might pitch those if——" he looked about, ruminatively—"if you think this is too squalid."
Joe turned appealingly to Garry, only to meet eyes flaring with deviltry.
"If you think that I'm going to give up my quarters for a troup of curious sight-seers, you're mistaken. If that's what you turned toward me for, don't allow yourself to dwell upon it another minute. I'm a laboring man and I have to have decent rest at nights. . . . Do you suppose Cecile would really mind a tent?"
And then Joe's face went red.
"Now ain't you the pair of rough jokers?" he whined. "Ain't you, though? But what's it going to be—this room or Garry's? The way I look at it we're elected to camp out ourselves. We're hardened sons of the wilderness, you know. That's what they always call us in print. But how am I going to get this place cleaned up?"
For another hour Joe argued it, and at last settled upon the store-house building as the likeliest for sleeping quarters for the feminine portion of the visitors.
"We have to eat in here, anyhow," he argued, "so I guess it's the best arrangement we can hit on. Honey won't be here much to meals, either. That'll be one nice thing about it. He'll be going north directly. And now—now I guess I'll go out and have a look at the pantry, even if it does make me feel sort of faint every time I think of the grub we've got on hand. Canned beans and boiled potatoes, and ham and bacon, to round out a banquet. Why couldn't a couple of mighty hunters like you bring home more than one little haunch of venison? Bacon and beans! Steve, you sure have been living mighty low-down on this job!"
He went out with a great show of haste, but returned almost immediately, forgot the urgency of matters in general in finding Garry idly shuffling a deck of cards. Throughout the evening Joe had exhibited an unwillingness to meet the third man's glances directly, but it was impossible for him to remain oblivious to the clicking of the chips. He balanced first on one foot and then on the other for a moment; then diffidently drew up a chair.
"Just a friendly hand or two, I suppose," he suggested, when the other made no move to begin. "Low limit and wide open, eh?"
Garry still toyed with the cards.
"I don't suppose you've ever forgotten the first game in which we indulged, have you, Joe?" he asked at length. Joe was not comfortable.
"Scarcely," he admitted. "Scarcely."
"Nor the—stakes?" pursued Garry.
"I—I seem to recall 'em, faintly."
Garry's peal of amusement was as rollicking as a boy's.
"So do I," he exclaimed. "And if I remember rightly you stated on that occasion that cash was no consideration with you. Does that still hold good?"
It was the first good look Joe had had at the other's face. The change he found in it seemed to perplex him more than a little.
"I take it that it does." Garry did not wait for his reply. "And now—what do you say to that same full bottle against a—a ninety-nine year blanket restriction, with me at the wrong end of the odds?"
Joe slitted his eyes.
"When they tuck a ninety-nine year clause into a franchise they mean it's forever, don't they?" he wanted to know.
"Forever, to all intents and purposes!" said Garry.
Joe's chest sank and rose in a long, long breath.
"It's no word to trifle with," he cautioned at last. "If you lose it'll be a considerable drouth."
"Cut!" invited Garry, and they started to play.
That other night Garry's stack of chips had lasted far longer than they did on this second occasion. A half hour later, when he rose to go to bed, his ninety-nine year promise of abstinence was piled symmetrically before Fat Joe. But his good-night was gay. For a time after his departure Joe eyed Steve, sidewise.
"Hum-m-m," he cleared his throat. "Hum-m-m! And I was expectin' you to turn up any hour of the last twenty-four with a request that I come and help bring home the remains. You must be quite a silver-tongued exhorter, aren't you, Steve?"
Stephen O'Mara was silent over the paper which Joe had handed him earlier in the evening, and the lack of any offer on his part to go into details did not trouble his questioner. Fat Joe sat and bobbed his head over what would never cease to be a miracle in his eyes.
"And he'll stick this time," he vented his wonder aloud. "He's surely going to stick!" Then he smiled widely. "And I reckon you'll have to admit that I handled the small part that come my way with ease and dispatch, when I tell you that he didn't catch so much as one lonesome pair, all the time I was dealing. I'm ashamed of myself. I haven't seen such a mean, crooked game of stud dealt since I come East!"
Garry was very quiet the next morning when he and Steve went back to their work; before noon came his uneasiness had become very apparent to the man whom he was assisting. But neither his silence nor his nervousness any longer worried Steve. Instead, the latter let himself smile over both those outward evidences of inward panic, whenever his thoughts were on Garry at all. For the latter's diffidence as the day aged became a flushed and warm-checked thing, until at four in the afternoon Steve could no longer withhold the suggestion for which wordlessly, Garry was asking.
"Joe was more than half right," he remarked, one eye to his level, "in spite of the fact that we refused to take him seriously. We can't let those people come in and find everything too hopelessly uncomfortable, so perhaps you'd better run ahead now, Garry, and see what he has accomplished. I don't want to leave this spot myself until I have some figures upon which I know I can rely. But you might run ahead, if you will. I'll be along later."
It was couched in the form of a request, but Garry's face flamed. He went, albeit a bit reluctantly. And he stopped more than a few times in his climb from the edge of the timber to the door of Steve's shack. But once he had passed over the threshold to find that unrecognizably trim room empty, his face grew heavy with disappointment; he was on the point of going back outside to scan the bowl of the valley when a tall, short-skirted figure, enveloped in a voluminous apron which Fat Joe in a moment of mistaken zeal had once provided for the cook-boy, flashed through the passage-way from the kitchen annex and barely missed catapulting into his arms. Miriam Burrell, pink-faced from the heat of the roaring wood-stove, and smudged with flour on forehead and cheek, lifted her apron and swung it like a flag of victory.
"I've found it," she sang triumphantly. "I've found out what was the matter! I'd just forgotten the baking-powder, that was all! Next time——"
Then she recognized him. With outstretched hands still clutching the edge of her apron, she stood, almond eyes widening, and scanned him from head to foot. Even Steve, who had been with him every moment, had noticed the hour to hour change that had been taking place in Garry's appearance. To the girl who had not seen him for weeks, that flushed, self-conscious man was a different Garry than she had ever known before. Hungrily her gaze went from open shirt to caked boots, from steady hands to clear eyes which made her own eyes shy. And then Miriam Burrell, cool and poised Miriam, did what many another maid in a checkered apron has done in similar situations. She lifted that stiff gingham to hide her unutterable happiness. But before he could speak she found her voice; nor was it very steady, at that.
"I thought you were that party of idlers come back," she hesitated. "How—how tanned you are becoming, Garry! I thought they—oh, I can't tell you how glad I am to see you so—so well. I'm making biscuits for supper—that is, I've just been practising until now. It seemed as though I'd forgotten something that was necessary to the recipe, because they were flatter after they were cooked than when I put them in the oven. And most marvelously heavy, too! But it was just the baking-powder, that was all. Do you—do you think you'd care to help?"
Steve was very late in returning to camp that night. Throughout the rest of the afternoon he set himself a pace, knee-deep in slushy mud, which Garry could not have maintained. But when he paused there in the dark where he always stopped for a moment and a tumult of voices swept down to meet him, he forgot his fatigue. He had lifted his battered hat from his head, striving to distinguish a single note in all that treble of girlish laughter when, framed suddenly against the background of light within, he saw a slender silhouette take up its station in the doorframe. Barbara was still peering out across the darkness when he came up to her.
"We've been waiting dinner for you for almost an hour," she rebuked him, in place of what might have been a commonplace greeting. "We've been waiting in the face of Mr. Morgan's insistence that it was practically useless. He has been telling us that when a man here in the hills fails to turn up for a meal you never bother to look for him; you know that the worst has happened."
Over her head the first eyes that Steve encountered that evening were those of Archibald Wickersham. While shaking hands with the girl, he bowed in grave welcome to the tall figure in leather puttees and whipcord riding-breeches, and Wickersham, from the far side of the room, bowed back in equal gravity. Then Caleb Hunter grasped Steve's elbow and spun him around toward the light and peered at him accusingly. Barbara had not noticed until then how tired Steve looked.
"Before the others get to talking," said Caleb, "before the tide grows too strong for my weak voice, young man, I want to deliver a message. Miss Sarah wants it explicitly understood that unless you stop in to say hello on your next trip down, she herself will take the trail up here. And lest that ultimatum sound too little threatening, I might add that when Miss Sarah takes the trail she never travels with less than six trunks."
Caleb clung so tightly to his arm that it brought a tinge of color to Steve's cheeks. It was minutes before he could get away to change his wet clothes, and in that minute or two he could not help but contrast, grimly, his own mud-spattered attire with that of Archie Wickersham. The tired blue circles beneath his eyes wore even more noticeable when he returned, to be ushered with much ceremony by Fat Joe to the head of the table.
It was an utterly irresponsible gathering that leaned over the red tablecloth that night—an oddly assorted group which, from the very first, Joe realized was not at all to Wickersham's liking. Dexter Allison himself, fairly radiating good-will, sat at the foot of the table, with his son-in-law-to-be on one side and Barbara's little maid, Cecile, on the other. And between Cecile and Barbara, who sat opposite Garry and Miriam, Fat Joe leaned both elbows upon the table edge and monopolized the conversation. The seating arrangement was Joe's; it was his party. And the absolute inattention to detail, the large indifference to veracity which his discourse disclosed before that noisy supper was over, grew to be an astonishing thing. His nights of fancy left Steve aghast in more than one instance; they even forced a stiff smile to Wickersham's lips, and that is saying much for Joe's success as an entertainer, for in the bearing of those two men toward each other there had been evident from the first a chill antipathy which amounted, actually, to armed truce. And the color in Miriam's cheeks, whenever his gaze strayed to that side of the table, helped Steve to forget, temporarily, much that he found not pleasant to recall at all.
For Miriam's tongue was no less irresponsible than was Joe's. Her mood was so mercurial that she drew, time and again, the eyes of all at the table. She chattered with an abandon that scandalized Barbara; broke in and interrupted every argument with hoydenish trivialities, in one breath, to appeal to Garry the next for refutation. And Garry, the light-tongued and quick-witted, sat almost dumb of lip before her happy garrulity. But his eyes never left her; they spoke his thought aloud. The quick lift and droop of her eyelids, the brilliancy of her lips, made Miriam's face a living thing of happiness—made Barbara's silence seem even more profound. For the latter's withdrawal from the hilarity, dominated half the time by her father's booming bass, was nearly as complete as was that of Wickersham himself.
Just once, shortly before they withdrew for the night, Steve caught a gleam of mischief in the dark eyes she turned toward him. She rose the next moment and started slowly around the room, poking demurely into corners and closetted nooks. Every eye was following her when she finally found the thing for which she was searching. She drew a red felt, yellow-mottoed cushion from beneath the deer-hide covering a chair, and held it up so that all might read. "What Is Home Without a Father?" it ran, and when the joy that stormed through the room made it sure that the exhibition needed no interpreter, Fat Joe turned and hid his face. Miriam rose languidly and joined the other girl in an examination of his handiwork. Smooth face tinted by the firelight, copper hair almost dishevelled in its disarray, she was an exquisitely lovely thing. In her alto voice she expressed her opinion.
"It's an entirely new stitch to me, Bobs," she averred. "I don't think I have ever before seen just this method employed." And she turned to Stephen O'Mara. "Do you suppose, Mr. O'Mara," she asked, "that I might learn it from the one who did this work for you? It's rather"—and her head tilted to one side—"it's rather a pretty thing!"
Again they succumbed to mirth, and then Joe rose, bristling, and went forward much as a gamecock might step out to do battle. He took the cushion from the hands of the girls, who no longer had strength enough even to hold it.
"If you are aiming to do any sewing around this camp," he stated, "you can start in sewing on buttons. This kind of work is entirely too nerve-wearing for amateurs."
He carried the cushion across the room and placed it, not where it had been hidden by the deer-hide, but in colorful prominence against the back of the chair. Long after he had crossed with Steve and Garry to their tents he continued to explode with soft chuckles.
"I never did say," he defended himself, "that that sentiment was strictly appropriate. I always stated that it was the best I could. And as for my technique—well, either of you guys try it some time! You just take a needleful of that yellow worsted and start tracking across a couple of yards of red and pathless desert, and see where you come out. I know, because I've done it. I'm a pioneer. But if I ever tackle another job like that it's going to be a crazy-quilt!"
And Joe considered, in spite of the din which answered him, that his challenge was ample.
I'M TELLING YOU GOOD-BYE
It was fully an hour after Fat Joe and Garry had rolled themselves up in their blankets when Steve, who had elected to sit up for one last pipe even though his body was aching with fatigue, heard behind him the approach of her footsteps. Outside at the top of the rise some fifty yards in front of the tents, he had seated himself on a log, chin buried in one palm and eyes vacantly steady before him; but even before he turned—before he rose slowly to his feet—he knew who was coming, knew and realized that she should not have come. Wrapped in a long heavy coat, face half-hidden by the upturned collar, bare of head, Barbara came quietly down to where he waited. And without word of greeting on the part of either of them, they sat down together, facing the silvered bowl of the valley.
Time passed before Barbara opened her lips for a long, quivering intake of breath.
"I never dreamed it could be so big," she murmured in awe. "And then to think that some day—within a few months in reality—engines will go screeching their signals across this very place. It doesn't seem possible; it seems almost a shame to spoil it, too."
Her earnestness was so unconsciously wistful that Steve could not help but smile at it a little, even though he had been telling himself, since the moment of her coming, that he must not let himself dwell just then upon that wistfulness which, for many hours, had been most apparent to him.
"I've felt that way about it often," he answered, almost dully. "I like it better myself, as it is. It does appear to be a long way ahead, doesn't it—that day of completion which you cover in the screech of the whistles? Only to-day, when we were scrambling about down there in the alders, it took nearly all the imagination I possessed to see two streaks of steel where there is nothing but thicket now. But as for the bigness of it"—he laughed deprecatingly—"it isn't so very big, you know. It's just a—a mean sort of proposition."
Barbara leaned forward, delicate chin resting upon interlocked fingers. She was not quite certain whether she had caught a thread of weariness in those words.
"To me," she said, "to me it is colossal! Why, I thought the work at Morrison seemed complicated and tangled enough, but there—there isn't even a beginning or an ending here. There's nothing but woods and water."
She pointed out across the valley toward a mound-like outline yellow under the moon; pointed into the north and asked another question.
"Is that part of the embankment?" she wanted to know. "Is that the direction in which Mr. Wickersham's timber lies?"
The man nodded.
"Just a few miles up through that notch," he told her. "That's the end of the rail-bed which we have been building along the river-edge."
Her next words made him start and then try to cover that moment with a readjustment of his long body.
"I'm going up there to-morrow. Mr. Wickersham has asked me to ride with him, in the morning." She waited a moment or two. "That—that's why I came out here to-night. We'll be going back to town the next day or two, and I wanted to have a chance to bid you good-bye, before I left Morrison for the winter."
He had known that she would not be likely to remain in the hills much longer. He had realized that each day which he checked off, always hopeful that the next might open the way for him to see her again, was steadily bringing nearer the date of her departure. But he had not let himself think that it would come so soon. There was no doubt this time about the heaviness of his voice.
"I see," he said. "I see."
There came another long silence. Rising out of it, Barbara's voice sounded very, very little.
"I've never known a sky in which the stars were so thick. They're—they're like a field of buttercups. And have you ever seen such an irrepressibly happy creature as Miriam was to-night. She was radiant—positively shameless! Did you know that Garry knows——"
"I told him, myself," said Steve, simply.
The girl faced around in her surprise.
"Most certainly! Why not?" His voice was not quite so unenthusiastic now. "It's one of the few unmistakable opportunities I've ever had to make two people permanently as happy as Miriam was to-night. I'd feel guilty all my life if I didn't help all I could, knowing how happy I am going to be, myself!"
Thus did he work around, quite without abruptness, to a renewal of that discussion which she had thought to close, weeks before.
"Are you trying to infer that I am to be a part of that happiness?" she asked none too promisingly.
"You ought to know. I said 'all my life.'"
And there, suddenly, Barbara laughed.
"I suppose now they'll marry and live happily ever after!" she exclaimed with an attempt at airiness.
"Most certainly," asserted Steve, although her mirth puzzled him. "Why is it funny to you?"
"It isn't, but—yes it is too, now that it's no longer a thing one need worry about. That's always the trouble with emotions which are too intense. They're either very sad to contemplate, or very, very absurd. And they will persist in exchanging faces, to the confusion of the on-lookers. Garry was so dangerously in love with Mary Graves, you see!"
"He was in love with an idea," the man contradicted flatly. "He was in love with just that. And it is not safe for any man to live alone with an abstract conception of anything. He's bound, sooner or later, to lose his grip on tangible things if he does. He's likely to start destroying property to further the cause of labor, or liable to turn to shooting men who were born to jobs I'm certain some of them never wanted—kings and that sort, I mean—figuring on solving the social problems of men and women who must solve that problem themselves. Perfection is a fine thing to anticipate; expectations of it are dangerous. And women aren't made that way."
"No?" her voice slid coolly upward.
"No," he told her, and smiled with that serenity she had come to know so well. "Not even you, though I suppose I'd about annihilate anyone else if he ever hinted at it." He chose to be didactic in tone. "No, you're not perfect; you've too much intelligence for that. Why, right now you're fighting with your brain against the dictates of your heart, and if you were above mortal error in judgment you'd know that you are wasting your time."
The girl forgot entirely that she, too, had promised herself that their leave-taking should not cross the border of personalities. And with that lazy joy of her on his tongue she might not have been quite so quick to hold that she could love no man, had she stopped to give it thought. Her advance to the skirmish was most spirited.
"Your opinion has the merit of sincerity," she said, "although, looking back upon a—a certain day, I can't help but wonder whether you haven't been guilty of mouthing pretty nothings for my poor ears."
"That proves my point right now." He was imperturbable. "You're begging the question to gain——"
"You said——" she flashed, and then grew red.
"I said I'd let you ask no pardon of me. I said I'd let myself find no flaw in you. But how does that embarrass my present argument? Flawless perfection would be a mighty difficult thing to live with, day in and day out. Living with a woman who never made a mistake could have no appeal for me. She'd always be emphasizing my own shortcomings. You become consistent and you'll catch me yawning some day; grow logical and you'll almost scare me off! Why, you're a girl!"
Her laughter was like a bell on the still air.
"And you—you still sit there and insist that perfection has no attraction for you? When you've just described, without knowing it, the—the sort of a girl you think is perfect."
His lips curled in a way to quicken any woman's pulse.
"You have me beaten," he laughed. His eyes, dark as was the shadow upon his face, made her breath unsteady. "I would like to watch you play poker with Fat Joe. Your game would puzzle him more than a little. Yes, you've surely left me without a leg on which to hobble off, because it would be small spirited in me, wouldn't it, if I were to tell you that you are the exception that makes my general rule hold sound? I wouldn't, however, prescribe such a degree of perfection for any other man's daily diet. It would prove his destruction."
"Your own superiority, of course, rendering you immune?"
"Maybe." At least, whether she knew it or not, she loved his serenity. "Maybe—and maybe I'm an exception too."
He sat very still. She had turned away once more.
"You'll be back again in the spring?" he asked with that gentleness he saved for her alone.
"I hope—I think so." The smallness of her voice angered her. She feigned a short, carefree laugh. "Unless I am too busy. Getting married seems to become a more and come complicated problem of proper costuming, doesn't it, with every passing season!"
She couldn't have told why she said it; she was trying to think of something else to say which would be kinder by far. And then, half lifting her, he had swung her around to him. For a moment he held her, face close to that small, frightened face buried in its deep collar, while she struggled uselessly against those hard arms which tried not to hurt her. Her lips continued to rebel, long after her eyes had closed—long after body and brain were quiescent.
"You mustn't!" she gasped. "Oh, I can't let you . . . the moon . . . we—we're sure to be seen!"
His lips on hers silenced that last incoherent resistance. She sat, wavy brown head bowed, when he had set her free.
"I was going to ask you not to forget!" There was no weariness now in his voice. "I had planned to ask you just that, a little ago, and it would have been a weak and useless request, wouldn't it? Any man who has to beg to be remembered is not the sort to remain long in any woman's brain. So I have taught you to remember, instead. You aren't going to forget, ever, now! You're coming back in the spring, and you're coming to stay! And now I'm telling you good-bye. It's time you were asleep."
He helped her to her feet. Together they turned—and Archibald Wickersham, tall to gauntness in the moonlight, was coming across toward them from the direction of the cabin. The girl's slim body stiffened, but Steve saw her chin come up. His own body grew lazier still, it seemed, in length and limb.
Wickersham's approaching steps were crisply precise; he stopped an arm's length in front of them, and his words were an echo of that last sentence of Steve's.
"It's time you retired," he said, ignoring the other man's presence entirely. "It's cold, and you have a long, hard ride ahead of you to-morrow."
For a barely perceptible moment, with the eyes of both men upon her, Barbara kept her place. Neither of them saw that her teeth were tightly closed over one full lip; neither knew that she had closed her eyes, dizzily, for an instant. And then, without a word, she put her hand upon the arm which Wickersham offered her; but Steve, on the other side, walked with her that night, as far as the door of the storehouse shack. Miriam herself opened the door and snatched Barbara within, and then laughed with her consummate impudence into both men's faces.
"G'lang wid ye's now," she flung at them, "an' quit disturbin' dacint folks that likes to sleep o' nights!"
She slammed the door upon them.
They stood there a second or two, Wickersham an inch or more taller and inches narrower in shoulder and girth of chest. Perfunctorily they nodded, each to the other, and wheeled silently upon their heels.
Steve did not respond the next morning when Joe summoned the rest with a long spoon applied heartily to the flat of a huge tin basin; and over the breakfast table Joe explained to the assembled guests the reason for his absence. Before daybreak a rider had come from Morrison, bearing word from Hardwick Elliott that Ainnesley was on from Manhattan and wanted to talk with him; before the camp was fairly awake he had ridden away into the south. And returning two days later, travelling the lower, lesser trails that followed the river, in order to save time, Steve missed her party going out. So, in the last moment, after days and days of patient waiting, did Chance trick him sadly.
How much or how little Wickersham might have overseen the night before he betrayed not at all at breakfast the next morning, either by word or look. And throughout that day, and the day that followed, while she rode at his side, undetermined whether she should attempt an explanation, Barbara found his face inscrutable. It was a week later, the night preceding her departure from the hills, long after the girl had ceased to think of him at all in connection with the incident, before she learned how much he really knew.
Miss Sarah had found her brother most uncommunicative upon his return from Thirty-Mile. In response to her first question concerning Steve he had assured her, lifelessly, that the latter was looking very well indeed, and let it go at that. Because she was a very remarkable woman, Miss Sarah had been able to curb her curiosity for several days, but on that particular evening she found it impossible calmly to wait longer.
"You have not told me yet, Cal," she reproached him at dinner, in her slightly lisping voice, "how much progress Steve seems to have made. You know how interested I am, and you must realize how undignified a thirty-mile dash on horseback would be on my part, in order to find out, myself."
While up-river Caleb had found much time in which to talk with Garry Devereau—that is to say, quite a little time, in view of the fact that Miriam Burrell, in boots and mackinaw, had insisted upon following Garry wherever he went. And since his return to Morrison he had been spending a surprisingly large share of his days in conference with Hardwick Elliott and his partner, Ainnesley. Now his reply to his sister's query was startlingly fervid.
"Progress!" he exclaimed. "Progress! I tell you he's going to win out, in spite of all of them, damn 'em!"
Miss Sarah froze in her chair.
"Caleb!" she expostulated. "Caleb!"
And Caleb's face went hot.
"I am very sorry," he muttered contritely. "But I couldn't help it. When I think of the way that boy has plugged on alone, all his life, with no one to give him a lift, it—it angers me to think that the very man whom I have prized as a friend should be the one to make his problem harder."
"Would you mind explaining, lucidly?" Miss Sarah requested. "And if it is business to which you are referring, will you please try to make it as brief and non-technical as possible?"
Once he started to tell her, Caleb realized that it was just what he had needed to do all along, without knowing it. Briefly as she had requested, he sketched for her the facts which, so far as he was concerned, had made of his first sneaking suspicion an absolute certainty. And he waxed wroth in the recital.
"It's treachery," he snapped, "rank, contemptible treachery. And the worst part of it all is that, even now, when I am morally certain of his culpability, I—I can't bring myself to despise the man. He's been my friend for thirty years, Dexter has, and damn it—— I beg your pardon, Sarah—but, damn it, I keep on thinking of him, in soft moments, as my friend now. I sit by the hour trying to foist the blame upon Archie Wickersham, and he's no more guilty than Dexter. Dexter's merely good-natured about his crookedness; wholesome about it, somehow. And Wickersham's a sneak!"
In all the years they had lived together Miss Sarah had never heard her brother talk so bitterly. Yet her voice remained soft.
"It's very unpleasant, no doubt," she sympathized, "although I can't quite see why they don't all join hands and try to make a success of the project between them. Surely it seems feasible. And, somehow, even after listening to you, I don't seem to find myself greatly perturbed about our boy, Steve. He's very big and strong, Cal, and—and I am very old-fashioned. I still believe in the might of right. It may sound very feminine to you, but I do not find myself worried at all over his lack of assistance in his work. And I must confess that I did not have it in mind, at all, when I asked in regard to his progress."
Caleb looked up, suspiciously.
"Well?" he said.
"I meant how—how did he and Barbara appear to—get on together?"
Caleb spilled a spoonful of soup.
"Her!" he exploded with no regard for his grammar. "Why, she is true to her blood! If she weren't she wouldn't be engaged to that thief who masquerades as a gentleman. She isn't blind, and she's going to marry him!"
"You are positively violent, Cal," reproved his sister. "And your reference to Barbara does not do you credit. If I were your wife I suppose I'd rise coldly now and sweep upstairs to leave you alone with your bad mood. But being merely your sister I remain to hear you apologize. Barbara is not yet married to Wickersham, I might add."
"I am exceedingly sorry," said Caleb.
"And, without any reason for it, save my womanly intuition, I feel very certain that she will never marry him," Miss Sarah went on. "But you spoke about Steve having no one upon whom he could depend for assistance, and it was really a helpful hint to me. Did I fail to hear you say how they seemed to get on together?"
"She didn't think he was good enough for her, ten years ago," growled Caleb. "She wouldn't think so, now. He cares for her, so she treats him like a dog, of course."
Miss Sarah had to smile.
"Then I think it is high time I did something about it," she stated thoughtfully. "For she is a lovable girl, and she hasn't any mother of her own. She's very pretty and little and finer than any girl I know. If she weren't, Steve would not be in love with her, I am sure. And Dexter Allison is no doubt an estimable man in many ways, even though, as you feel positive, he has a tendency to acquisitiveness which is deplorable. Your continued regard for him convinces me of that. I wish, however, that Steve was not so entirely dependent upon what he earns. There are many beautiful things—beautiful and intimate and feminine things—which no man can remain happy in seeing paid for by other money than his own, for the woman he loves."
Ten minutes after it was done Caleb could not have told what impulse was to blame for the deed, but he rose forthwith and went to his strong-box, to return with the legal-looking document and the bunch of tax-receipts which he had found among Old Tom's papers, years and years before.
"There's the deed to some thousands of acres of the finest timber in this country," he announced challengingly, "all ship-shape in the name of Stephen O'Mara, 2nd! Old Tom bought them for the boy he hid away with him, in the days when timber-lands were going for a song. He paid the taxes until he was drowned, and I—I've paid 'em since, my dear! Three or four hundred thousand dollars, or more, ought to buy quite an amount of—er—feminine necessities, it seems to me."
With delicately thin fingers Miss Sarah leafed the papers through.
"You have never told me of this matter before, Cal," she murmured.
"Never told anybody!" chirruped Caleb triumphantly. "I tried to find the boy—both of us did, that is—and we failed. And when he turned up of his own accord—well, I knew a half year more of ignorance concerning his legacy wouldn't see him starve. Sarah, I wanted to see how that boy of ours would behave, without any backing. I wanted to be sure of the stuff he is made of!"
They had finished a much interrupted meal, but Miss Sarah lingered a moment at table. With incredible calm she had listened to the secret which her brother had been keeping to himself so long.
"A very good reason," she agreed, "one that would seem to have many points to excuse it. And although it is not within the letter of the law I—I think, Cal, I shall become an accessory before the fact. Very shamelessly I am going to ask you to see that no one knows of this property of Steve's, for a little longer, at least. I have spoken with the utmost confidence concerning Barbara; your reference to all that she said to Steve in a childish burst of passion years ago does not affect my attitude at all. But I have not been blind to what might be her—opinion now, either, impossible and ignoble though it seems. You will not tell Stephen of this matter for a while, Cal, for it would please me to know, without room for doubt, just what stuff she is made of, too!"
She straightened her diminutive body and started upstairs.
"She will be over to bid us good-bye to-night," she added. "Will you see that she comes directly up to me?"
And once more, from the landing, she spoke over her shoulder:
"You said that she treated him like a dog, Cal," she managed to keep her features grave, "and being a woman I can understand exactly why that is so. The joy of a breathless pursuit, it is often said, is the only choice left for the female. But can you tell me why a man hunts out the deepest, most comfortable chair he can find and ensconces himself therein, once he had overtaken the idol of his fancy? They often do, you know, sometimes for the rest of their lives."
Caleb lighted his pipe and cast about for his paper. "Maybe it's only the natural consequence," he retorted, his face turned away, "of such a pursuit as you mention. Maybe he feels the need of a long, long rest!"
And then Miss Sarah laughed.
An hour later, when she ran upstairs, Barbara found Caleb's tiny spinster sister, in negligee and boudoir cap, sitting cross-legged like a girl in the middle of the floor. There was an orderly litter of papers around her, and a confusion of clothes; and Barbara hesitated on the threshold until Miss Sarah nodded her head.
"Come in, my dear," she invited. "I'm indulging in one of the few joys left to advanced, unmarried years, that is all. But even memories need prodding with more material things, at times, I find."
The dark-eyed girl crossed and found a clear spot and seated herself. Without seeming to look at her, Miss Sarah saw that those eyes were vaguely troubled.
"I'm leaving to-morrow," Barbara began after a minute. "I came over to say good-bye."
Miss Sarah went on with her sorting.
"We'll see you again soon," she suggested pleasantly.
There was trouble in the girl's voice, too.
"I—don't think so."
"It's a very pretty country—a hard country to forget." Miss Sarah very wisely gave no heed to the woebegone note. "Perhaps," archly, "perhaps you'll be returning as the new Mrs. Wickersham?"
Barbara flushed duskily. Miss Sarah, however, was gazing at a dog-eared picture—a very old-fashioned picture of a youth in brave and resplendent garb of a period long dead. No one but herself and her brother had seen that photograph for many years, and he only because he had rummaged in a pigeon-hole in which he had no licence to look. His sister's eyes, as well as her posture, were girlish when she laid it aside to hold up to view a battered black velvet suit with wide collars and cuffs.
"I wonder if you could ever guess who once wore this?" she laughed lightly.
Politely Barbara examined it.
"I'm sure I couldn't," she answered. And, very slowly:
"Miriam is going to marry Garry Devereau. She is disgracefully happy about it."
The older woman received this irrelevance with composure.
"How charming," she said. "And I am sure that they will continue to be as happy as I hope you will be soon. This suit was Steve's—little Steve's. Dear me, what a day that was!"
After a moment of hesitation Barbara leaned forward to examine the silver buttons.
"It—it doesn't seem possible," she faltered. "What sort of a—a day?"
And then, with smooth, serious face upturned, she listened to Miss Sarah's tale—her own story of how she had dressed a gloomy-faced boy in half-century-old finery and sent him townward for eggs. When it was finished and she had decided, abruptly, that she must be going, suddenly, wet-eyed, she wheeled in the doorway and went blindly back to the older woman's arms. Miss Sarah hugged her once; then stood her away at arm's length. She knew how few women weep, without hiding their heads.
"There, we mustn't be temperamental," she chided. "It's only for a winter, at most. Remember, I love you very dearly, Barbara; write to me whenever you are lonely. And be a very good girl."
It was a brave bit of comfort, but Caleb's tiny sister, whose face had never lost its pink-and-whiteness, looked suddenly tired and old when she was alone again. As blindly as Barbara had come into her arms, she reached for the dog-eared picture and held it to her flat breasts. There is no greatness of soul save there be simplicity. Very directly, very simply Miss Sarah stood there in the middle of her girlish room and spoke to her Creator.
"I do not mean to meddle, dear God," she whispered, with tears squeezing from beneath tight lids. "I only want to help a little, if I may. You see, I've never had a baby of my own."
The door of the ground floor room which served Dexter Allison as an office was ajar when Barbara re-entered the house beyond the hedge. There was a streak of light running out across the floor of the dim hall from within, and the girl lingered on her hurried way to her own room to bid her father good-night. But she found Wickersham alone when she pushed wider the door. The light was behind him and she could not see how distorted was his face, yet as she paused on the threshold and a thin and pungent odor crinkled her nostrils, she sensed, somehow, that he had not been long alone.
"Father gone to bed?" she called. "Well, that's wise. You'd better come, too; it's time you were asleep."
She did not remember, just then, that other night when he had addressed those same words to her. She only knew that his features became suffused with purple even before she had finished. And then she realized quickly that it was alcohol she smelled; knew, too, that it was not Wickersham who had been drinking, even though Wickersham had trouble with his tongue. And while she waited, puzzled and frowning, the man gave up an attempt at his usual nicety of phrase and blurted out all that which had been many days hidden behind his impassivity.
"We haven't yet set a certain date for our marriage, Barbara," his voice was strained. "Don't you think it is high time we did?"
The girl colored. It was, at least, very unexpected.
"Why, no, we haven't," she admitted. "But we can if you wish it. Have you thought of a day you'd prefer?"
"I have," he stated. "Would the first of May be too early for you?"
Often, afterward, she wondered at her humility of that night, for whatever the quick thought might have been which made her reach out one hand to touch the doorframe beside her, her words were merely mild.
"It is, rather. But I think I can manage it, if it will please you."
Wickersham had come to his feet, but he would not turn so that she might see his face. He spoke with eyes averted.
"It would," he answered with an effort, "and—and in the interim I am going to be very sure, now, that no thoughtlessness of yours will be derogatory, either to my profound respect for you or your own respect for yourself."
The small hand closed then until it was clutching whitely the woodwork beneath it. She understood at last how much Wickersham had seen; she was never to understand entirely her mood of that moment. For had she waited she would have left him with finger ringless. Instead she wheeled without a word and climbed, white-lipped, upstairs.
Miriam Burrell loomed in one window of her bedroom when she entered—a different Miriam than the one who had once sat in just such an attitude, gazing into the north. The older girl's gladness of heart throbbed in her voice.
"I don't want to leave it, Bobs," she sighed. "I love every brawling rapid and sulky, ragged old peak. Did you ever see a more perfect night?"
Through the gloom the younger girl's answer lashed back, reckless of what hurt she might do.
"I hate it!" she gasped vehemently. "I hate it—hate it! And I must ask you, please—I want to go to bed."
There is a poise which comes only with hard-bought knowledge of one's self. It was Miss Sarah's; Miriam had acquired it, too. Without a hint of resentment in her manner she rose and withdrew. But Barbara did not go to bed. She took that vacated seat at the window. And long after her breathing had ceased to be quick and sharp she was still wondering why the odor of stale alcohol should recall to her, with elusive vagueness, the threatening face of a red-haired riverman who found it hard to keep his feet.
SOME LETTERS AND A REPLY
Her letter came to him a week later, though she had posted it the morning she took the train from Morrison. It had lain for days in the post-office box of the East Coast Company, waiting the day when one of the teamsters should call and carry it in overland. Steve had never before seen her handwriting. It was his first letter from her; yet he recognized it the instant Big Louie put it in his hand. And he was glad that night that both Fat Joe and Garry were absent from the up-river camp—glad that he was to have the next hour alone. But when he broke the flap of it Big Louie, who lingered uneasily in the open doorway—even Big Louie, whose wits were not particularly keen—knew from the expression which passed over his superior's face that this heavy envelope which he had brought had not contained good news. The quick contraction of muscles which tightened his jaw was too much like a spasm of pain. For her first letter, so the sentence ran, was to be her last; she wrote "less kindly than she would have wished to write," that she and Mr. Wickersham had decided upon the first of May, and after the silence had become a throbbing thing Big Louie decided, instinctively, that he would let go until later the demand which he had planned to make for a raise to meet that raise which, so he had heard it gossiped in town, was being paid the men in the northern lumber-camps. He stumbled going out and lost his balance so that the door crashed to behind him, violently. But Steve stood as he had stood when his eye's sought the first line of her note, nor did the crash penetrate his ears.
Repeatedly, in the interval which had elapsed since she had bidden him good-bye, the latter had told himself that she would not write, but the repetition had been unconvincing. He knew that now. With the note which smelled faintly of her there in his hand he realized that he had gone beyond mere expectation of a letter; he had dared to hope concerning its contents. How was he to know that she, too, after mailing it, had suffered as keenly as he was suffering that moment, wishing that she had employed less abrupt phrases, rebelliously regretting that she had sent it at all?
That night his fingers closed until the monogrammed sheet was reduced to a crumpled ball. The edges of the paper took fire slowly, then it exploded softly into flame upon the bed of coals in the fireplace where he had tossed it. And at that he laughed aloud, a harsh taunt for his own high hopes, without thinking how much his mirth of that moment was like what Garry's once had been. He lowered himself into a chair, and he was still there, motionless before a dead fire, when morning dawned greyly. His face had become less hard; he even found it possible to smile a little when the cook-boy, starting at the sight of him fully dressed at that hour, advised with alarmed volubility that breakfast would be ready immediately. But the few men who still remained at Thirty-Mile, felling and hauling the piles which were to carry the track across the swamp, noticed a difference in their chief that morning which made them careful to hear him, the first time he spoke an order.
Barbara did not write again, and in this, at least, the man who loved her anticipated her correctly. The letters, however, which Garrett Devereau received each day from Miriam—bulky, extra-postage epistles—brought often news of her; and these fragments Garry, knowing without being told for whom they were meant duly delivered to Steve, in weekly or fortnightly instalments, whenever the latter's duties brought him to Morrison. For Garry and Fat Joe, who had been transferred to the lower end of the work, along with the bulk of the up-river force, had noticed that difference too.
"Miriam says for me to keep my feet dry this cold weather," he'd tell the other man, laughingly, "and Barbara sends her regards to all of us, and hopes that we are making splendid headway." Or again: "Barbara's looking a little pale, Miriam writes. She says she's—er—trying to do altogether too much for her endurance."
Whatever the bit of news was Garry passed it on religiously, a little guiltily, sometimes, because of his own great happiness. Once he had failed, signally, to read behind his friend's moody silences; his surmise concerning the reason for Steve's changed bearing was not so wide of the mark this time. Often, within himself, Garry's wrath seethed hot, but he was no longer as ready as he had once been with verbal, cynical criticism. Only to Fat Joe did he dare pour out his soul with that vivid incisiveness which always held Joe spellbound.
"He's eating his heart out over her," he'd explode, "over a girl who is proving every day that she isn't worth a minute's heart-ache of a man like him. I used to think she had brains, if any of them did; I used to think that Barbara Allison was something besides a fluffy little fool! Why can't he see for himself that she's just as worthless as most of the rest of them?"
And from there, without knowing how truly funny such argument sounded, coming from his lips, he would soar to wonderful heights of profanity. But save for the pleasure which he took in the pyrotechnics, his outbursts made little impression upon Fat Joe. The latter maintained a sort of placid superiority, perhaps because he had learned early that this attitude aggravated Garry's rages; perhaps because he was so very certain of his man.
"I wouldn't go to getting all stirred up like this, so early in the game," he'd reply with unvaried calm. "Shucks, it's too early to begin counting either man's pile of chips—" either man to both minds meaning Steve and Wickersham, without the naming of names. "You are too liable to premature enthusiasms or discouragements, Garry. That's why I mostly manage to beat you as easy as he beats me, whenever we throw a hand or two. Ain't you never going to learn that a man must gamble a bit on the cards still waiting to be dealt?"
And again, confidently:
"He's worried—of course he is! He ain't enjoyin' his meditations a little bit these days, but he's enjoyin' 'em more all by himself than he would be if we were up there with him, forcin' him to look everlastingly like four aces, when it's deuces at present he's holding. He's worried, and that's why I don't grow nervous myself. Because it is only the man who is too sure who is awful likely to finish broke. Don't you waste any pity on him yet, and I wouldn't let him hear me passing uncomplimentary words concerning his girl, either, if I was you. Lightning ain't particular where it strikes when it's been a long time cooped up. Every man to his own taste in such matters, says I—and shucks, man, can't you tell, just from seein' 'em together that they was made for each other? If a man quit every time a woman began to put him over the jumps we'd have a dangerous decrease in marriage licences staring us in the face. He's just learning to care more for her, that's all, and caring a lot about anybody never was a comfortable state to be in. It's entirely too uncertain and unsettling—but you wouldn't enjoy not caring about anybody at all, yourself, would you?"
Garry admitted that he wouldn't.
"Well, then, don't waste your time pitying him." A cold gleam flickered in those bleached blue eyes. "Don't you suppose I'd have taken apart long ago this animated ice-chest who is making all the trouble, just to see what makes him so cold, if I didn't know I'd be spoiling the big show? Couldn't you see, without my tellin' you, that I'd rise up some day and leave him looking like a premature blast, after all I've learned he's plannin' to slip us, if I wasn't sure that he's going to get it, worse than I could ever give it to him, from that girl herself? Well, I would. He makes me shiver, that man; makes me crawl and itch to take his head in one hand and his throat in the other and exert a little strength in opposite directions. Give our entry time! The game is running dead against him at present, I'll admit, but he's husbanding his chips. He ain't drawing wild and squandering his chances. And he's only begun to play."
Which, in part, was very, very true; in part not so close to the facts. Before snow came that fall Steve had recovered his outward confidence, at least; he had begun to hope again, while he waited and labored prodigiously against the coming of spring. But in his heart he was no longer sure; he could not summon back that serene self-surety which, toward the end, had shaken even the girl's certainty in herself. He could no longer argue convincingly with a vision of her, as he had often argued with Barbara herself, that his way would be her way in the end. For he had begun to realize the width of that gulf which he knew must seem to exist between them, if not to her then to the eyes of others of her world.
It was his memories which gave him consolation those long nights, but they also gave him doubt. Remembering the daintiness of her as she had come to him, the night of her party, recalling the things to which she had been accustomed since she had opened her eyes on the first light of day, he began to ask himself as every man like him has asked who ever loved a woman, how in any fairness he could expect her to accept the little which he could offer in return. To Steve and Fat Joe, to the men of his gang, his confidence was that of the old, old Steve who, ten years before, had cocked his head at one of Allison's switch engines and promised gravely, "I'll hev to be gittin' one of them for myself, some-day." But his heart ached. And when that ache became so leaden that he couldn't endure it any longer in silence, he carried it to the one person in his life who was best calculated to understand. Diffidently he broached the subject with Miss Sarah, approaching it in a roundabout fashion least likely to deceive that bright-eyed little lady.